What is it about a place? What defines it? Somewhere you feel that is a home? A refuge? Is it somewhere you have never experienced? A new feeling or a beautiful vision? Mostly, a place is thought of as a coffee shop more than a space inside the heart. But what is the difference? A place is not just where you are but where you take notice of where you are.
There is a place in particular among friends that if you were to look at it, it would be built with safely constructed trusses and be tricked out with those heated tile floors to keep your feet warm.
The door to Ila and Matt’s apartment gave a bump, the sound that comes from a shoulder trying to get the front door open when the keys cannot open the door fast enough on a cold night. The second attempt was more successful and they shuffled in, squealing and stomping their frost covered boots into the rug.
“Freezing!” and “Burrr!” were exclaimed, though neither could tell who exclaimed what. A minute more of shivering and various swishing of duffle coats and sniffing up runny noses, before Matt realized another need.
“First for the bathroom!”
Ila shouted an insult after him, pinching in her own familiar feeling. She ran instead to her room and pulled her clothes off, her naked body giving a noticeable “ahh, yes. Keep going,” after each layer, starting with the sweater all the way to the bra hooks. She dressed in an oversized shirt that technically belonged to Matt and pushed her hair up off her neck.
“Better,” she heaved, until she noticed her hands. They were cracked and bleeding from the cold. The first thing she thought to herself when she saw the bits of bright red on her knuckles were, this actually happens to people? Too late to go out for lotion, not that there was any excuse to not have any living in a country where anyone was likely only a mile away from a tube of not just generic but Dr. recommended brands, and for not much more than a dollar in the travel bins. Ila always was frugal; picking out meat straight from the clearance areas, her eyes drawn to the yellow tags and expiration dates at the grocery store, or choosing to go into a store only if she had an internet coupon or a buddy who could get her a twenty percent off discount. Only certain expenses were worth the cost in her mind like concerts from adored bands, investments in computer apps, a large frothy coffee in the morning when you aren’t sure you won’t walk into a wall instead of a doorway.
“Better,” Matt echoed, coming into Ila’s room. “Yikes! What have you done to yourself?”
“Sorry. Its a sight,” Illa said as if her hands carried a folded Hallmark card intended for the unfortunate looker. Matt chuckled.
“Want me to go out for lotion? You are obviously in need of it.”
“No, don’t. Its late and cold.” Ila didn’t mention the fact that Matt would probably refuse to take her money for it and buy her the largest and most expensive bottle of lotion on the shelves. But Matt didn’t need her to tell him, he understood.
“I’m going,” he said, grabbing his coat.
“No! Come on, I really don’t want to go anywhere and look -” Ila said pointing to her bare legs and wooly socks “-if you go, I’ll have to go.”
“Nice, Ila but that looks painful and it will only take me a second.” It was painful, embarrassingly so. After the initial realization, she also noticed that there was a cut on her finger that split open and ached like a splinter under a fingernail.
But the night was so bitter it tasted green, you could dab a martini glass in the air and pour yourself a smart cocktail.
“I’ll be right back,” Matt said over his shoulder. “Make me an omelet?”
Ila smiled. “With that smoked turkey you love!”
“And cheese!” He called getting on his coat.
“And mushrooms!” Ila finished before he jangled the keys and shut the door.
Ila went straight to the stereo and started her favorite late night music, Van Morrison. Swaying to Moondance, she grabbed a skillet and piled into it the butter, eggs, lunch meat and button mushrooms, then performed a magic trick by carrying the milk jug with her pinky finger. Humming to herself she started the stove and placed a pad of butter in the center. By the time it had melted into delicious bubbles, the turkey was chopped into thin little salty bits and the mushrooms sliced into folding cards. To punctuate her happiness, she lifted her hand upward over the hot skillet as she dropped the bits into it so that as the sizzle bounced off the kitchen tiles, her hand practically said, “ala-kazaam!”
Ila felt happy often here, this was her place. But it wasn’t just this aspect that made her so happy tonight.
Through the technique of scrimping, along with the painful thumbs down to that end of the day eight dollar beer, her hard work was paying off. It was the last day for registration for the advanced ceramic’s art class with one of her mentors, Dr. Caroline Hannighan who rarely taught classes, let alone a one-on-one tutorial to twelve students. The fact that she met the criteria to be allowed in at all was a daily affirmation to her resume; she told herself this as she was brushing her teeth or waiting for her coffee to brew. Ila got herself that last spot afforded by all of her cheese-sparing efforts. Matt bought the beers tonight, not that he could afford it himself, but when she would bring a finished vase or bowl home, he would nod like a grandfather pleased with the time on his pocket-watch.
Ila swore again, this time to herself, having forgetton to check the messages. Sure both Matt and Ila had cellphones, but this home phone was intended specifically for all the salesclerks and propaganda deals that required a phone number. They each had faux email addresses too.
“Beep,” said the machine whose play button was now smeared with buttery sheen.
The first message was from Ila’s sister, she’d met a guy and he was younger than her and she wanted to know what should she do and to call her “immediately”. Illa flipped the omelet over. The second message was from a salesperson, getting the syllables of her last name all wrong. Ila nodded congratulations to herself for this machine as she grated sea salt, her secret to a good egg dish. As soon as the third message started, she froze.
“Matty? Matt? Are you there, please be there!” Ila turned from the skillet and walked slowly toward the machine, panic and shock creeping over her. “It’s your father. Oh God, honey, he had a stroke. They’re putting him into surgery now. I don’t know, I don’t know what to do! He was just fine and then he said something crazy about how I needed to change the soil in my garden, and then…Oh God Matt, I don’t know. Call me back. Please, ok? Please.”
“Beep,” said the machine.
Ila looked over meditatively at the night light of her laptop. If she didn’t pay the tuition, she would be dropped from the class. Without anymore thought than that, she was typing and clicking away at websites crossing over time wasted for pages to load by researching details on her smart phone internet.
Ila hardly noticed when Matt came into the kitchen saying lovingly, “there you go, stupid. Oh are you kidding me?! You burned it?!” Matt sounded superficially destroyed. Illa had not even realized, she had completely forgotten about the omelet.
“Matt,” she said and he realized right away from her voice. He knew the walls of their place together well, the way she had said his name was like a new chair in their living room and he tripped over it.
“Here, your ticket to Boston. You need to go home right away.”
There were some expenses that were worth it to Ila; Matt knew he had a safe place he could always go to.