You know it's going to be a hot one when the cicadas get started before noon. Scarlett is back in Texas, home from New York on the advice of friends like me who said sometimes the smartest thing you can do is bail on a bad time. In the weeks since her return she's been abject and elated by turns, her bad days just bad enough to scare the people who know how bad things can get.
Twice a week she comes over and eats lunch with me, which is good for me because I am at the point of obsession with work that I will forget to eat if I'm not reminded, and good for her because twice a week she gets free food. For the first few weeks she surfed from couch to couch, but now she has a part-time job at a coffee shop and our friend Lorna cleared out her junk room to give her a place to stay. So, that's good.
This afternoon she comes over for lunch, and I know she's not happy almost before I hear her feet on the porch. She's sad, she says, because of all the boxes sitting packed in her room, and nothing to put them in. "I feel like I'm living in a fucking squat with my mattress on the floor," she says.
I listen for her breath and hear it where I knew I would, high and rapid in her chest, making her heart beat like a pair of desperate wings. Her voice shakes with the effort of containing herself.
We get on Craigslist and find someone who is giving away a futon frame. The post says it's out by the curb, free to the first person to roll up and take it away. Scarlett has borrowed her mother's car for the afternoon, so we drive over to the address in the listing, a blank little street in a treeless part of town. It's right in the hottest part of the day, and the air-conditioning doesn't work in the car, so we drive with the windows down and say as little as possible.
Last week I had to sit Scarlett down and say Listen. You can't come over to my house in the middle of the day and yell at me. I'm too busy and too tired and my patience is at too low an ebb.
And she said, but I'm not even mad at you.
And I said, but when you're mad, you're mad at everyone. You're an equal opportunity hater. I might not be the one you're yelling at, but I'm the one you're yelling at, so chill.
She did chill for a few days. Around me, anyway. And I let myself hope, again, that this meant she was feeling better and now everything was going to be OK. When you love someone, you have to hope for things like that.
I read the address out for her and sure enough the futon frame is still there by the curb. It's a nice one. Well-made, substantial. Too substantial. It is never going in the back seat of the car. We try for a bit anyway, putting the back seats down and trying to twist the frame this way and the other way. The sun is right overhead, dead hot and mercilessly bright. We give up and put the frame down by the curve, stand wiping our faces off in the alley with the tails of our t-shirts.
"Nope," Scarlett says tightly.
We get back in the car. "This is such shit," Scarlett says as we pull away. "I'm so sick of not having things I need."
Scarlett's never been good at hanging onto things. She loses apartments, jobs, lovers, friends, and she never takes it lightly, the way some people do who've been losing things so long they've got the knack of it. For Scarlett, it always seems to hurt.
"I guess it's back to the shake joint," she says now, knuckles white on the steering wheel. "That's what everybody keeps saying. 'Why don't you just dance?' Why does that always have to be the answer to everything?"
"It's not the answer," I say, carefully. "It's an option. It's quicker and easier than some of the other options."
"But it's not always easier."
"No. It's not always easier."
"I need glasses. I need my filling replaced. I have warrants. I don't know what else I can do."
I don't know either. It is convenient to walk off the street and get hired and make a few hundred dollars the same day. The convenience is undeniable. But.
"It's almost too convenient," Scarlett says, reading my mind. "It's like...this pretty little toy with sharp edges."
"It's a compromise. You have to understand the compromise before you make it."
"I don't think I'm very good at compromises."
It's true. She's not. Sometimes that's a good trait. Myself, I tend the other way. If my ends seem to be in sight, I will endure far more than there is any point in enduring. I've lived years of my life that way. Scarlett knows this. There's a reason we're friends.
"If you start dancing again, you should know exactly what you're doing it for," I offer. "Dancing for survival is the worst. That's when you really feel stuck. You have to have one thing in your life that you really love. At least one thing you care about so much that it makes everything worth it. You have one goal and every day you do one thing to meet that goal, and as long as you do that one thing you can feel OK."
Some of this I believe to be good advice and some of it I know is superstition, but I still believe it and it's all I've got so I hope it's something. She frowns like maybe she's listening. "Look," she says, suddenly excited.
We pull over. There by the street, a five-drawer bureau stands next to a row of garbage cans. It's sadder than it looked at first. We walk around it, fingering the peeling veneer until a sheet if it pulls off in our hands.
"This is trash," Scarlett says. "Somebody is throwing this away for a reason."
We stand there for a second longer, trying to make the dresser into something it isn't, trying to make it into something somebody could use to make a life. The sun wants to melt us like wax.
"Oh, well," Scarlett says. "The last thing I need is another sad piece of trash in my room to look at every day when I wake up. Oh, well. Oh, well."
We get back in the car.
I tell her we'll figure it out. I don't know what I mean by this. I don't know what it is, even, let alone how we are going to figure it out. I just know that sooner or later things will be better and sooner, probably. Sooner than she thinks.
I've seen so many things slip through her hands. I've seen her start her life all over more than once, except you never really start your life over. Those cardboard boxes drift from house to house, from friends' garages, from the backs of cars, from rented storage rooms, and there never seems to a place to put everything away. I don't really know why. As old a friend as I am, I don't really understand why her life is made of the scraps of other people's lives. I don't know when she'll be happy, but I do hope it's soon. If you love someone, you have to have hope.