Sylvia wished she saw anything but houses when she looked out her bedroom window. A field, a lake, or the foggy moors of Wuthering Heights. Or if there must be houses, let them be stately. Like Pemberley or Brideshead. Misselthwaite Manor, with its secret garden. Not the plain cape cod homes that filled her street. Only a narrow driveway separated the postage-stamp yards. These houses were like her own: two bedrooms, one bathroom, and low ceilings. Sylvia preferred reading books about faraway places, about people whose names were exotic like Helmer and Katrina. Of times that were not her own.
“People were more interesting back then,” Sylvia said to her friend John. He was sitting on the edge of her bed, as he did most mornings until his bus arrived. John was fourteen, two years younger, but she tried not to hold that against him.
“I don’t know about that,” he said. “Arranged marriages, duels to the death, serfdom. . . . You’d have three children by the time you’re twenty.”
“But people felt things. Real emotions, you know? Like Romeo and Juliet. Catherine and Heathcliff. They didn’t just sit around and obsess over the smallest details. They had real pain, not this high school bullshit.” She longed for a time when people didn’t care so much about who was wearing what or who was sitting with whom at the lunch table. A time with wars and plagues and dynasties. All she knew was that she had to get out of this place.
Sylvia grabbed a green flannel shirt off of the floor then held a finger up to her mouth.
“Why’s there a can of peas on your nightstand?”
“Shh—” She put her ear up to the closed door and listened for any sign of argument between her mom and stepfather. They’d been married for less than two years and never fought in front of Sylvia, but it wasn’t possible that they were happy. She imagined him leaving for work in the morning and then never returning. No goodbyes, nothing. It wasn’t unprecedented, after all. Sylvia was five when her real father did the same thing.
“Food drive,” Sylvia finally answered. “Homerooms are having a contest. You should have seen my mom’s face when I asked if I could take it. Like she couldn’t believe I was actually participating in something.”
Across the street, an old lady in a trench coat slowly marched backward, dragging a plastic blue trashcan out to the curb. Trash was collected on Fridays, but it was still early on Thursday. Maybe the old lady was going on a trip. Or maybe she forgot what day it was.
“I see your bus,” Sylvia said. “See you tonight.”
After John left, she opened her copy of Jane Eyre. She got to the middle of chapter two by the time she had to leave for school. Orphaned and penniless, Jane is forced to live with her cruel and wealthy aunt. Jane has been put in the room where her uncle died as punishment for fighting with her cousins. The walls are blood red.
The air was especially pungent when Sylvia arrived at the park after dinner. It was almost exactly halfway between her house and John’s. “Name the smell,” she said.
“Burnt tacos. Maybe sour bagels.”
“No, it’s definitely asparagus pee.” Sylvia climbed to the top of a slide and looked toward the P&G factory less than two miles away, where they made Ivory soap. The sky remained a glowing gray-pink, with lines of white from the smokestacks streaking across. She thought of the week she spent at her aunt’s house in Milford, so far away from anything the only sounds at night were crickets, and all she could smell was the honeysuckle. Sylvia had asked when her dad was coming back, and her aunt told her to count the stars instead.
Sylvia climbed down the ladder. “How would a homeless person open a can of peas without a can opener?”
John guessed that they broke them open with their hands or whatever else they could find. “You get pretty strong, living on the street,” he said.
Sylvia came out early to her stoop the next morning, garbage day. All down the street, trashcans were set out by the curb. But the one that had been in front of the old lady’s house just a day earlier was gone. Sylvia ran inside to grab her backpack, and when she came out, the lady was dragging the blue trashcan back to the edge of her driveway.
Over the next week at school, Sylvia learned how to bisect a triangle with a compass and a straight edge, about checks and balances in the three branches of government, and about supernatural portents in Julius Caesar. Her homeroom was behind in the food drive.
On Thursday, Sylvia watched again as the old lady pulled her trash can out to the curb. After school, the blue can was still there. Sylvia lifted the lid and peeked inside: it was spotless and empty.
“I don’t understand,” she said to John at the park, later that evening. “What do you think she’s doing?”
John shrugged. He climbed to the top of a yellow spiraling slide and just sat there.
“You ok?” Sylvia asked.
“My dad kicked Becky out. I think he really means it this time. They found her with drugs at her new school. Then she and my dad got into it pretty bad.”
“I’m sorry,” Sylvia said, thinking about that time in fourth grade when she and Becky overfed Pinky, the class fish. Becky had scooped it out of the tank with her bare hands and taken it to the girls’ restroom. When the teacher asked where it was, both of them swore it jumped out of the tank and landed somewhere behind the bookshelves. Becky and Sylvia had stayed best friends for three and a half years after that.
John slid down. “Maybe the trashcan wasn’t always empty. Maybe it did have something in it when she brought it to the curb. Next Thursday you have to look as soon as it’s out there.”
Then, Sylvia did something she’d never done before: she walked up to her friend and gave him a hug. “See you tomorrow.”
A bag of apples, a sack of potatoes, three boxes of snack cakes, a can of chicken-noodle soup, and one packaged toothbrush filled the bottom of the trash can in front of the old lady’s house the next Thursday morning. Sylvia decided she wasn’t going to school that day. She walked back to her small stoop and sat on the top stair. She opened her book to chapter sixteen, where Jane is secretly falling in love with Rochester, her dark and impassionate boss. Sylvia wished there was someone she both loved and hated with such intensity. But she found herself merely in dislike with the majority of males. Every other sentence, Sylvia looked up to see what happened to the trash can.
During the next two hours, twelve cars passed, most heading toward Winton Road. Sylvia folded the corner of her book at the beginning of chapter seventeen and went inside to grab a pop. When she came back out, a middle-aged man wearing green-brown pants, a blue coat, and a knit skullcap had lifted the lid of the trashcan. He bent over, the top half of his body disappearing into the can. When he stood up, his arms were full. The man hurried around a corner.
Sylvia ran across the street and opened the trashcan: it was empty. She looked up toward the house and saw the front door opening. Her impulse was to run, but then she thought better of it: if she left, she’d never find out what happened.
The woman looked even older up close. The tan trench coat went down to just below the knees, exposing her wrinkled white shins.
“Miss?” the woman said in a soft, cracking voice as she made her way across the yard. “What are you doing?”
“Someone just took the food out of your trash can,” Sylvia said.
“I know. Would you like to come in? I’ll explain.”
As she stepped through the front door into a sparsely decorated living room, Sylvia imagined herself as Jane Eyre, entering the Rochester mansion for the very first time. This was how an old house should feel.
“I’ve been leaving food for that man you saw,” the woman, Virginia, said once they were sitting across from each other at the kitchen table. “I watched him dig through my trash about a month ago, taking out orange rinds and stale bread; so the next Thursday I filled it with new food.”
“Who is he?”
“Not sure. I don’t know if he’s homeless or just poor. But anyone who’s willing to eat something others have thrown out must be rather desperate.”
Sylvia nodded. “What if he doesn’t have a can opener?”
“What a thoughtful question. I left him one last week.”
“We’re having a canned food drive at school for a soup kitchen. I’ve been wondering about that.”
“They probably combine everything in big recipes.”
Sylvia smiled. “That makes sense,” she said. She was pleased with their conversation and asked if she might come back and visit.
John was already at the park when Sylvia arrived, his face buried in a library book.
“Guess who I talked to today?” Sylvia didn’t let him guess or finish his page before she continued. “The old lady! Virginia Schutermann. Isn’t that a great name? She’s been leaving food in her trash can for this scruffy-looking man to get. I’m going to go back to visit her. The sophomore class is doing a canned food drive, and here this old lady is helping all on her own”
“Think I could come?”
Sylvia waited a few seconds so it would look like she was mulling it over. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Not yet, at least.”
“Well, maybe my dad can drive us to Octoberfest tomorrow.”
“What?” Sylvia had been thinking about her next meeting with the old lady.
“I asked if you wanted to go to Octoberfest. You know, eat bad food and make fun of drunk people doing the chicken dance,” John said.
“Why would. . . . No, I think I’m going to see Virginia again. I’ll let you know what I find out. Later.” Sylvia hopped off her swing and walked home.
“Did you know Winton Place had its own mayor? Now, that was even before my time. Only lasted a year or two before it became part of Cincinnati. Imagine: a mayor for six hundred people.”
Sylvia smiled. “So, when did you move here?”
“Walter and I bought this house in 1954, the same year the railroad was built. My, there was such fanfare. You’d think the World Fair had come to town. I used to tease Walter when he came home late from work that the next time, I’d buy a ticket, see where everybody was going. He thought I was kidding, but I did wonder. You ever ride a train before?”
Sylvia told her about the one at the Cincinnati Zoo that went in a circle, past the wolves, around a lake, and back again. Sylvia said that it didn’t really count, though.
When Virginia stood up to get some water, she walked much more gingerly on one foot than the other. Also, she opened the cupboard, removed a glass, and lifted the faucet with her left hand. All her life, Sylvia had wished she were left-handed. Or ambidextrous: that would be even better. Virginia sat back down, placing the glass in front of Sylvia. Sylvia asked her if Walter had been her first love.
“He was the only one that counted.” Virginia was staring past Sylvia toward the wall.
Sylvia turned, expecting to see a photograph or some sort of memento, but the wall was blank except for the faded green wallpaper that enclosed the room. Virginia’s eyes seemed wide and vacant, yet Sylvia was certain she had witnessed a lifetime of joy and heartache. Sylvia imagined that Virginia had fallen in love and gotten engaged in 1941.
But her fiancé, like all other able men at the time, is called to war. He sends her letters, as often as he can, from his base in Italy. He tells of the other men there, of the beautiful ocean, but above all, he writes of how much he misses her. He misses her like the night misses the sun.
Two weeks before he is to return to America, this man is killed by a grenade that accidentally goes off. Virginia is so heartbroken that she decides to never love again. But then a young man knocks on the door at her parents’ house, where she is still living.
“I’m Michael’s brother,” he says, holding a cardboard box. “I think he would have wanted you to have these.”
Virginia looks into the box: lying on top is a framed photograph of the two of them, dancing. A tear runs down her cheek. “I don’t know how to thank you,” she says.
“My name’s Walter,” he says.
The two of them spend time together, each helping the other grieve. Three months later they become engaged and, six weeks after that, they marry.
At least, that was what Sylvia had decided.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Sylvia called up to John, that night at the park. “Real love! Real feelings! Love and war! It’s better than any book.”
John had climbed to the top of the tall slide and shifted a yellow tennis ball between his hands. He tossed the ball.
Instead of catching it, Sylvia knocked it away with her right hand. “I have no coordination.” She picked it up and softly threw the ball back to him.
John pitched above her head. “I saw Becky today,” he said.
“Did your dad let her come home?”
He shook his head. “I watched her unplug the TV, and some guy helped her carry it out. She went back for the VCR and they both got into a car.”
“Did you try to stop her?”
He slid down the slide. When he reached the bottom, he walked to Sylvia. “I didn’t know what to do, so I let her go. I just stayed in the kitchen and waited for her to leave.”
Sixth grade was the last time Sylvia and Becky had spoken as friends. They’d talked about what a doofus Mr. Hand was for assigning twenty pages of reading that night. Sylvia had said it wouldn’t be so bad, but Becky insisted that teachers didn’t want students to have a life.
The next day Becky hadn’t been sitting at her usual desk in front of Sylvia. Instead, she was in the back, talking to a girl with purple hair. At lunch, Becky didn’t sit with Sylvia at the corner table next to the window. After school, Becky didn’t wait for Sylvia by her locker. Sylvia went straight home, marched into her room, and slammed the door. She’d pulled out her favorite book, Bridge to Terabithia, and re-read the scene where Leslie died, over and over again, until her mom called her down for supper.
John had been a measly fourth grader at the time. When Sylvia came by the house and Becky pretended not to be there, he stepped outside. He said Becky was acting stupid and that she didn’t know what she was doing. Sylvia had said she didn’t care, that Becky could do whatever she wanted.
John took off his glasses and cleaned them with his shirt.
He stepped forward, holding his arms out expectantly.
Sylvia hesitated then walked up to John, letting him embrace her. “It’ll be alright,” she said, waiting for him to let go. But instead of letting go, he squeezed tighter. Sylvia stood there, feeling trapped. “John,” she said.
That’s when he kissed her.
Sylvia jumped back, out of his arms and away from his face. “What are you doing?”
“I love you,” he said.
“As a friend.”
“No, I love you like Heathcliff loves Catherine.”
“It’s just a crush,” she said. “It’s because of everything that’s going on with Becky.”
“It’s not. You said you want real emotions, real heartache? Here they are!” He was crying now. “Heathcliff was younger than Catherine, wasn’t he?”
Sylvia walked back two more steps, shaking her head. “I can’t deal with this.” She turned around and sprinted home. It was her first kiss, but she decided right then it wouldn’t count. Her first real kiss would be almost five years later, her junior year of college, after Sarah Treble gently caressed the side of her face.
“Good news, class!” Mrs. Paulson waited for everyone to become adequately excited. “Homeroom 204 has overtaken 207 in the food drive. Tomorrow’s the last day, so be sure to grab those cans!”
Sylvia slouched back in her seat, hoping no one would hear her stomach growl. She’d skipped breakfast that morning, and she put the brown bag lunch her mom had packed into Virginia’s garbage can—today was Thursday.
“Oh, and next week is spirit week, so remember to wear your red and white! A Graeter’s gift certificate goes to the student voted to have the most school pride!” Mrs. Paulson looked around the room. When she made eye contact with Sylvia, she smiled. She pointed to a bag of cans and mouthed, “Thank you!”
Sylvia spent her lunch period in the back corner of the school library. In the middle of the novel, Jane Eyre flees Thornfield and Mr. Rochester, after discovering he deceived her. She sleeps outside, penniless and without nourishment. When Jane, wealthy from inheritance, returns to Thornfield, Rochester is blind and disfigured from a horrible fire; he assumes no one could love him. But Jane doesn’t care about what he looks like. They marry and live happily ever after.
Sylvia thought Rochester was rather weak and selfish and that Jane would be better off without him. But the heart wants what it wants, Sylvia supposed.
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