On Bald Mountain, at the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, there are no windows, just mountain ranges that ripple out in every direction. The sun is high in a cloudless sky when I shrug off my backpack at the summit. I savor the floating sensation and the exact temperature of the soft wind and sparkling light. The feeling takes me by surprise, like love, and I want to stretch out in it. The only two people for 360 degrees are me and a scrawny shiatsu practitioner named Dean who, it will turn out, doesn't love me.
Of course I'm in love with him. He easily seduced me with his Southern charm, brainwashed me with his slow smile and glassy blue eyes, the dreamy way words come out of his mouth, so round and soft, more lullaby than ballad. The way he says the word Clorox makes me swoon—I ask him to say it and he rations it out for me, pressing his lips to my ear so his breath makes me shiver, Klo Rocks.
Instead of undressing each other on the mountaintop while the sun is warm, we set up the tent and make a stew of dried lotus root and shitake mushrooms over a little blue flame as the sun sets. Before we finish eating from our tin cans, it's drizzling, and by the time we zip our sleeping bags together, hail is bouncing off our tent and, unseen, every softly undulating feature of the dark landscape turns to ice.
My first awareness of this day may be before I’m able to speak. We lay down at the foot of the bed to catch a breeze from our open window. The white pillowcase is cool against my cheek and because the tip of my nose lightly touches her bare arm, I inhale her scent of fennel seed and warm bread. My grandmother and I take a nap under a quilt she has sewn with the pattern of a brown-haired girl in a yellow dress bending to pick forget-me-nots. Over and over again she reaches. The girl's blue flowers match the color of my sky. This is how I think of it; the sky and the wind are mine as much as my grandmother and the quilt.
Dean's mother has already made wedding quilts for his older brothers. Now she opens the quilt she's been working on for Dean, spreading it out under the soft lights of the Christmas tree, over the living room floor of the house in Winston-Salem where he grew up. There is an element of ritual in her unfolding, with the careful revelation of each perfect panel of squares. His mother is shy and strokes the side of her face, watching her son crouch before her work.
"Huh. Well, Mama, it's really beautiful." He stands up and pushes his hands into his pockets. "It truly is, and I can see how much effort you put into it. I can."
He tells her she misunderstood what he asked for, that she's reversed where some of the colors should be, that he only wanted the purple, black and gray squares, not this buttery fabric with the tiny flowers she's worked in as a softer counterpoint. Maybe she could use some red there, instead. She will have to pull out most of her work and start over. Dean hugs her before he kneels again to fold up the quilt.
There are days every year that are the same: when the rain finally stops after that first heat wave and the swampy steam first rises into cooler air like an answered prayer; or later in summer, a day when mounds of impatiens, like rosy loaves that steadily rise, look, perhaps, a little leggy and for no particular reason you sense the approach of fall with its first touch of grief; or, in the midst of all those fiery colors—shaking themselves from the trees like so many little banners, shy as the flutter of lashes, impatient as fists in a crowd—because you've hardly noticed any of this, the day when you ache, seeing the trees bare; or the day of first snow, hushed, with lacy, cartwheeling flakes, when time itself rests; or the day when you are compacted, migraine-like, between the dark bed of morning and the dark lid of late afternoon; the giddy, muddy day of reckoning in spring when hundreds of live worms are washed up on the shore of every pavement; and always, year after year after year, that spring afternoon when a soft breeze, only slightly cool, rushes through all the open windows, lapping, caressing, and your only wish is to prolong the sensation with a nap, under a light cover, with someone you love. Every year has an almanac with such days.
In Cairo, this first warm day with a cool breeze comes in March and we close our shutters and roll up the car windows. The khamseen, or sirocco, carries sand, dust, and soot in squalls and enters every human opening—eyes, nose, ears, mouth, and even the openings that aren't exposed—enters tender places like a gust of ground glass. When I shower, black filth flows down the drain and however much I scrub, more sand comes out of my hair. Even here, in New Jersey, my Egyptian ex-husband considers this a dangerous day and warns our children to cover their ears or stay inside.
I can count these days of disappointment and foreshadowing as I tally up the years, numbering losses and tracing the residue of their flare, like the brief arc of a comet's tail. But these are also the days of open-armed hope. Forty-nine less days of desire as I wait for love.