Catnip cigarettes and saffron tea
Julianna Caspari liked green tea.
Her pale pink travel mug was filled with it, along with three herking tablespoons of honey. She didn’t believe she was far enough along yet to be craving things, but, when she’d been standing in her family’s kitchen at sun-up this morning, she’d felt she’d had to add the two extra dollops.
As if her soul demanded it.
Which could have been a stress thing, she thought, staring down at her mug as she exited Copeland’s apartment. She didn’t have a great deal of experience dealing with stress, but she had a little. She knew talking to her mother made her stomach hurt. And imagined that the mere sound of the woman’s voice had, over the course of her life, been slowly giving her an ulcer. She further imagined that, if she really was holding onto the opposite end of that stick, things might be working in reverse; that if stress from her mother discouraged her from eating, that the stress of becoming a mother might be causing her to enjoy it. Which also explained why, every time one of her four sisters had moved out, her mother lost another ten pounds. Regardless, whatever it was, honestly, other than worrying about being an eighteen year-old unwed mother with dogmatically catholic parents, or her fool boyfriend, the consumption of sugar was all she thought about.
She slipped Copeland’s apartment key back into her pocket and juggled her mug to pull the door closed behind her. She’d planned to come over early and wake him by gently sitting on his bed. Maybe softly whispering his name. Then, in theory, they would have talked about everything. Because, if she’d gotten to him early enough, she could have said whatever she wanted and been in complete control of that conversation. The boy’s brain just didn’t work that fast first thing in the morning.
But he wasn’t there, and, after yesterday, after watching the horror crawl across his face, and watching his whole life drain away behind his eyes, she knew the only other place he’d be. The same place she’d wanted to go when she’d found out. And, though she wanted to see him, was going to see him, wanted to rub the sand off his face and kiss him good morning, she would never dream of defiling his sanctum sanctorum with The Talk.
But her bike was lying flat on the ground and all she could do was huff when she saw it there.
Julianna didn’t drive, didn’t have a car, didn’t even have her license, and rode her bike everywhere. Her sunset beach cruiser had a rose pink body, extra fat whitewall tires, chrome plating everywhere, and a pristine wicker basket hanging from the handlebars. It was beautiful. Dependable. And perfect. She called her Mademoiselle Madonna del Ghisallo. Or “M” for short.
Julianna completely sympathized with biker gangs in movies because of her; when they murderously rampaged after whatever asshole knocked over their neatly parked babies. She totally would have done that. But this, M lying helplessly on the ground, in the gravel, was her fault. She had recklessly leaned her against the wall, and, in her nervous haste to accost her sleeping boyfriend, M had paid the price. Whatever gouges had been chipped from her chrome were nobody’s fault but her own.
The Channel Inn’s grounds were guarded by eight foot high stone walls, along with an enormous, retracting oak gate; to keep the locals out, the guests from other hotels out, and Bayocean’s homeless population from napping on their lawn chairs. But it also meant that, this early in the morning, no matter where you were on the grounds, even though the sun had been up for over an hour, there was nothing to stand in but shade.
Even though she’d spent her whole life on the coast, and knew, even in the sun, she’d be covered in goosebumps ‘til noon, she couldn’t keep herself from wearing shorts. As soon as May was gone, and warm weather was in any way a possibility, it was shorts until September. Summer rules. But she was tired of the morning air whipping over her naked legs. And Copeland’s Beach really wasn’t that far. So she left M on the ground, for fear of her falling again, or seeing her scrape marks after picking her up. So she marched, clutching her still warm mug, toward the tunnel.
The Inn, if you looked at it from above, was a Y. Or, more realistically, a very heavily bottomed U; a large main building with two wings that stretched up, parallel, straight toward the road. There was a highly gardened roundabout in the square between, and the main gate opened at the top of the arms, leading guests around the garden to the lobby in the center. Or, through tunnels beneath each wing, to private parking on either side.
Jules made her way under the northern arm, watching the pigeons as she went. They were already out looking for food, whirling around in the tunnel with her, and made her feel like a fairytale princess. Like they were paying their respects, acknowledging the life that was growing inside her, with their cooing and clapping wings. She smiled and nodded at them, as she imagined Snow White or Cinderella would, and then worried what her little friends might think of her if they knew how young she was, or that she wasn’t married.
As she stepped out into the open air of the square, there were bees moving between the lavender shrubs and rose bushes, too quiet to hear, slow in the cold, but busy and ignorant of every problem in the world. Which Jules appreciated. Their only ambition in life was to make more honey. And Jules appreciated that even more. She took a deep breath, sucking in the lavender with the smells of the early morning tide, and let the whole thing wash over her.
It was all so soothing, she closed her eyes.
She’d never figured out what it was that she smelled when she smelled the beach, though the scent by the water was as familiar to her as coffee or Pine-Sol. But besides the rotting crabs and composting seaweed she really had no idea what it actually was. What combination of things, living or dead, created that briny mist. The earth practically reeked of it. All over town. Even the plants and soil, far beyond the reach of the water, were heavy with it. As though all life within a gull’s reach of the sea had breathed in so much of it over the centuries that now it just poured out of everything.
It could get, at times, a little intoxicating.
Not altogether unlike, however strange it was, the smell of smoking catnip had become.
Almost singularly because it meant Gabby was coming.
Jules practically skipped around the garden, and snuck up behind her friend.
“Hey, sweet pea,” the old woman rang, spinning around, in her wonderfully graveled voice.
Jules just stood there on the stone border of the garden, smiling happily, admiring one of her truly favorite people in the world.
For all intents and purposes, Gabriella Frankley was a wizened and refined eccentric, and Copeland’s surrogate grandmother. Or, more apropos, his doting lunatic great aunt. His very old, doting lunatic great aunt.
This morning, she was wearing a thigh length red and burgundy vermicular patterned silk robe, embroidered with a hundred brightly stitched lotus blossoms, and, to the casual eye, nothing else. She carried her tea with her in a white china cup with platinum bands around the base and brim, and held a smoldering black cigarette in the other hand. Her hair was perfectly gray, cut short and curled, with a black ribbon tying it up; the bow just above her left eye. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, no matter what time of day it was, or year, no one had ever seen her locks otherwise.
Julianna adored her.
She just felt that a woman who was a thousand years old, nearly always shoeless, and only ever seemed to care that people felt welcomed was the kind of person everyone should love.
“Well,” Gabby craned her head, “I don’t usually expect any of my angels to make an appearance in the world until at least after eleven.” She had a habit of cackling at the end of sentences, regardless of whether what she’d said was funny or not, and absolutely nobody minded. “So what’s your story, tiny?”
Jules didn’t know what to tell her. She popped open her mug and took a sip of her green tea. She opened her mouth, thinking something to say would just come out naturally, but nothing did. She was starting to feel nervous and she never felt nervous around Gabby. There was no reason to. The woman had no shame. Not for herself. Not for anyone. But there was a sudden bubbling feeling coming up from her middle, an overwhelming uneasiness, and all she could do was stand there, staring, studying her old friend.
It was a troubling, bubbling feeling, to be sure.
It didn’t scare her.
It had no sharpness or quickness to it at all.
It was just a kind of thoughtfulness, maybe. A feeling that was turning into a thought. A bit of unconsciousness hardening into information. Swirling. Slowing. Stopping. Becoming matter. Mattering. She had no choice but to consider it.
It was an instinct.
She’d never had an instinct before.
She swallowed her tea. Hard. And her jaw fell open, just a little.
In one very uncomfortable instant, Julianna Caspari knew what it was.
But how did the old woman know?
She wasn’t supposed to know.
She shouldn’t know.
Only Cope could have told her and, no matter how freaked he’d been, he would never have, not in a thousand years...
“You can tell that I know. Can’t you, tiny?” Gabby interrupted, still smiling, but without her cackle. “You know I know you’re pregnant.”
“God, Gabby! Did Copeland tell you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course not. That boy wouldn’t tell me if I had the last bucket of water in Bayocean and his dick was on fire.”
Jules took a large gulp of her over-sweetened tea, so thick with honey that it coated her throat, nearly choking her. She tried to cough but just sort of gagged over the nearest lavender bush. “How’d you find out?” she gasped after a minute.
“Well, when you get this old, you stop needing people to explain very obvious things to you. Experience makes even the dimmest bulbs seem bright, and you, my darling, are glowing. But that’s not what we’re talking about, is it?”
Jules put her fist to her mouth to keep from coughing in the face of her friend, couldn’t hold it in, and snorted through her nose.
“Oh for Heaven’s sake,” Gabby laughed, pulling the plastic travel mug away from Jules and replacing it with her own tea cup. “Here. Drink this before you drown on my sidewalk.”
Gabriella’s tea was the practical opposite of her own. It wasn’t hot, barely lukewarm. And it wasn’t sweet. So unsweetened, even, that it felt dry and tickled her tongue and danced on her lips as it went down. And, as soon as it reached her belly, her entire body relaxed. She stopped shivering. Not that she wasn’t cold anymore. Because she totally was. It was just as if her body had learned a new trick; like she could be in the cold, but no longer needed to be a part of it. Like she had total control. Maybe it was control. Control in a cup.
“What the hell did you just give me?”
“With a little cream.”
“Saffron, as in the most expensive spice in the world, Saffron, made into tea, with cream?”
“Yes. Well. And just the tiniest drop of brandy.”
“Gabby! You can’t give me alcohol! I’m…”
“Sweetheart, there’s more alcohol in your mouthwash. But you go ahead and tell me anyway. You’re going to need the practice.”
Jules looked away from the old woman, and took another sip.
Gabby looked away too, politely avoiding eye contact, but kept talking, “Let’s get back to the matter at hand, shall we? You knew that I knew.”
“But how did you know?”
“I don’t know.”
“Has that happened to you before? Have you ever felt that way? Like you knew something you couldn’t actually have known?”
“Never. First time.”
“You’re going through one of life’s most incredible changes, little one. And some women, not many you see, but some, go through it a little differently than others.”
“I had to sit through sex-ed just like everybody else, Gabs. I know what’s happening.”
“I don’t mean the bitty in your nitty, tiny. I mean you knew that I knew. For some women, when they…
“What are you talking about, Gabby? It was just a weird feeling. I probably just thought- I just thought that you knew I was…”
“I just thought you knew I was pregnant.”
“And I did. And you’re such a good girl!” Gabby cackled and took her teacup back, wrapping her arms around Jules, burying her in her bony chest. “Say it again, tiny. Tell me again. There’s no one here. Say it louder. It’s already happened to you and you can’t keep it from being real by not talking about it. Just say it over and over. Get comfortable with it. You’re going to need to be. You’re going to be this way for a while.”
Julie cried, “I’m pregnant, Gabby.”
“I know you are, honey. Oh, how I know.”