The Key to Catastrophe Management

In Issue 60 by Mary Lannon

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Photo by Joana Abreu on Unsplash

I've finally figured it out, I mean, about the weather and all: how important it is to me, to you, to everyone, to our well-being. For a long time, I thought it was Charlie who figured it out first.

But before that—Charlie and I—we were in the same boat. Neither of us knew of our complete and utter ignorance.

No, neither of us had any respect at all for the weather that last semester of senior year when we first met searching—in what can only be understood as a mockery of our ultimate fate—for a meteorology class. We both showed up for "Meteorology 105: The Science of Weather" in the wrong classroom at the wrong time.

Snow lay on the ground that day, and sleet, which usually forms when rain falls through a cold air mass in the upper atmosphere, fell lightly. The temperature was 25 degrees with winds mild and from the northwest, and cumulonimbus clouds blanketed the sky. But at that time neither Charlie nor I paid the least mind to the weather. You might even say we defied it.

Certainly, we didn't dress with it foremost on our minds. Charlie, sporting a three-day growth of beard, wore an army jacket and blue jeans with holes in them. I wore leggings and a long sweater. Neither of us had bothered with gloves, hats, or scarves.

On the way from the wrong class to the right class, we found ourselves sliding down icy paths, hurling snowballs at one another, and throwing each other in snow drifts until we collapsed shivering and out of breath on the campus center steps. We looked at each other then, as fools often do, without completely registering the shock of uncanny recognition.

Charlie and I were both art majors. Charlie had been one since his first day of freshman year when, after a five-minute sojourn in engineering class, he had gotten up and walked over to the Art Department. I had only reluctantly and in anguish signed on to the art major in my junior year after spending two years trying to be an accountant, only to concede, finally, that my constant need to draw pictures on my math homework might actually mean something. Prior to that, I told Charlie that day on the campus center steps that I had hoped to be something practical—successful, even.

"I know how it is," Charlie said. "My father spent all my high school years trying to talk me into architectural engineering. You know, there's nothing you can do with an art degree and so on."

We decided to go for beer instead of going to class and ended up talking until three in the morning. Actually, we spent our time griping, grousing, and grumbling. We began with St. Mike's required science course.

"I don't know why an art major has to take science courses," I said.

"The class is about the weather," Charlie said. "How hard can that be?"

I agreed without a second thought.

From his first day in art class, Charlie said he had fallen in love with the unyielding materials of industrial art. Still, he grudgingly accepted the fact that there was no future in the field.

"Studying art's like living on borrowed time. I mean talk about loans. My sculptures aren't exactly bringing in the bucks," Charlie said. "I'd really like to work for a record company or maybe a museum. Even advertising for something like that wouldn't be so bad. Worse comes to worse, I've got an uncle at an ad firm in New York. He told me just to give him a call, and the job is mine. But that would suck. We're talking completely corporate. Lots of stuffed shirts."

I was impressed that Charlie had managed to think of using his art degree for a practical purpose. I admired what I considered to be his direction in life. I thought about my own strange absorption in colors and lines, in materials and their potential forms. Even after three semesters filled with art classes, I still felt a wonder and reverence for each new aspect of the craft. I loved the boldness of sculpture, the purity of painting, the kookiness of cartooning, the awe art history inspired in me, and the hard to get out clay left under my fingernails from pottery. But I felt helpless among my zigzagging interests. I couldn't figure out what they might add up to after graduation.

Neither Charlie nor I was looking forward to that particular date.

"Man, graduation's what got me in trouble with my ex in the first place. She saw it on the horizon, said we've been together three years, and started looking around for rings."

"Yeah, well my ex told me that I'd make an ideal wife and mother. That was his way of suggesting we get hitched."

"I guess she had a point. You know, three years is a long time to be together. But I'm only twenty-two. I tried to tell her that. But she wouldn't have it."

"After he said that, I kept walking around, thinking all I am to him is a brood cow. Of course, Jon and me—all we ever did was fight."

The story I told Charlie about Jon and me was true. I'd been telling it a lot since we broke up six months before. Told it often enough so that I almost believed that it told all there was to tell about Jon and me. But the truth was I didn't know what to think about our relationship. Jon was my first. I had been in love, I was sure. But all we did was fight and make up for a year and a half until he graduated and decided to move to the West Coast—his decision to relocate becoming only the latest bone of contention between us. By the time he left, we were both exhausted. With a continent between us, we held the final go-round—merely a formality by that time.

"People our age shouldn’t get so serious," Charlie said.

"Yeah, it’s too crazy," I said.

“All I want now is to hang out with my friends and have fun,” Charlie said.

As I sat there nursing my beer and thinking about Jon, I decided that I’d had it with relationships too, and I agreed with Charlie. It was time to just hang out and have fun.

***

When I got home that night, I sat on the couch—shivering. My roommate Penelope looked at me with what I swore was a certain, self-satisfied disapproval. Earlier in the day, she had advised me on the turn the weather might take. "Louise," she said, "you know it's going to snow. Don't you think you should at least wear gloves?"

But I had ignored Penelope's advice. I always attributed Penelope’s awareness of the weather and her not-so-obvious and obvious promptings to me of its importance as a kind of misplaced motherly instinct. Penelope, after all, was an elementary education major who, it seemed to me, was never happier than when she could tell other people how to be sensible. Penelope's fiancé Jeff was usually the happy target of her warnings. But Jeff was on a student exchange to Paris that last semester, and for this reason, I figured Penelope had redirected her common sense toward me.

That night I brushed aside Penelope's smug look because I was dying to tell her all about Charlie.

"It's such the best setup. We're already such pals. We both agree that romance is out of the question. So we can just be friends. It's cool—none of that namby-pamby stuff like is he getting the wrong idea or does she think I'm leading her on? We've already decided to be friends."

As I fell asleep that night, listening to a westerly wind against my window, I thought about how perfect it was that Charlie and I had found each other when we felt the same way about everything.

***

Charlie and I decided to meet to study a half an hour before each meteorology class at Al's coffee shop. Al's featured good coffee and a cheap breakfast special, and it was only two blocks from the building at the edge of campus where “the Science of Weather” was held.

With little latent heat remaining in the earth from the warm days of summer, the February days turned bitterly cold.

Each class morning, I arrived first and ordered my coffee. Just after my coffee arrived but before it cooled enough for me to drink it, Charlie straggled in looking unwashed and bleary-eyed. He ordered his coffee and when it arrived, he poured in lots of milk and sugar and began drinking it quickly. I took the opportunity to question him on radiant energy, stationary fronts, and prevailing winds, enjoying his slow reflexes, his muddled responses.

Before we knew it, we had to leave our coffee behind so we wouldn't be late. Walking with Charlie, I felt very warm despite the sub-zero temperatures, but I hardly registered the contradiction.

Once in class, the caffeine kicking in, Charlie would begin to sketch, and I'd begin to take notes then we'd switch notebooks with Charlie taking notes and me trying to make something out of his sketch. Back and forth the notebooks went, each of us in turn filling in where the other had left off.

On some mornings, caught up in our conversation, Charlie and I began to forget the time and miss class altogether. Before long, we stopped even keeping up the pretense of forgetting the time, and we began to invent excuses for not going.

Charlie and I never ditched the other class we shared: Advanced Painting. Our painting prof, Matsuda, wouldn't have stood for it. She would have said we were shirking our responsibility to our art. Unlike most professors in the art department, Matsuda did not take an if-the-spirit-moves-you approach to attendance or to art for that matter. No, with the intensity of a meteorologist forecasting a tornado, Matsuda strode up and down the rows of canvases stopping here to point out an out-of-line perspective, there to demonstrate a brush stroke, all the while exhorting us to work hard. "There's no such thing as genius," she said at least once a class. "Those who say they lack genius are only afraid, afraid of what they might find out about the world and about themselves."

"She's out there," Charlie said after the first class. “I mean Van Gogh, not a genius? Picasso, not a genius?"

I thought about my own favorites: Degas, O'Keefe, and Tiffany—geniuses all, and I agreed with Charlie. Matsuda was clearly out of her mind. Still, I never missed her class.

A slow-moving cold front pushed in from Canada that March, displacing stable warm air and yielding almost daily snowstorms. Graduation loomed—a horizon, a deadline, a demand. Charlie and I felt that we should have as much fun as possible during our last days of college (one of our common rationales for skipping class). But we also felt that we should be in career mode, trying to find ourselves an occupation.

"I just can't see myself starving for my art," Charlie said. "Working for a museum or a record company shouldn't be so bad. Maybe I can even work in some industrial art ideas. Who knows? At least I can do my work on weekends."

I knew that Charlie talked this way in part to reassure himself that he could really carry this off, that he could give up his obsessions with steel and cement, with mortar and brick, with shape and form and the ways they made meaning out of chaos. For I knew that Charlie's regular unwashed, bleary-eyed look came from his all-nighters molding stone, steel, and wood into his latest creation.

Charlie had shown me his artwork, one sunny morning. The ice we weaved around acted as a reflector of the sun’s rays, blinding Charlie and me as we made our way along the sidewalk.

Sophomore year, Charlie informed me, when I was busy failing Accounting 222, the industrial artists had been moved to the second floor of the warehouse that had previously stocked the University cafeteria's supply of staples and canned food.

Very few people were in the studio when we arrived. Rays of sunshine streamed through sky lights and in through the tiny windows that covered two sides of the warehouse. Blinking to try and readjust our eyes, we walked over steel girders, around cinder blocks, under hanging tarps, to Charlie's sculpture. Charlie had transformed one of our doodled sketches into steel. We had been inspired (to our great surprise) by meteorology class to create a kind of whimsical unisex child fighting off the world with only a tattered umbrella.

I sat cross-legged on the tarp looking up at the sculpture, and Charlie knelt beside me. Charlie had managed to bend the steel to capture in the figure of the child the combination of light-hearted fierceness that our sketch had reached for.

"Whattya think of the kid, Lou? Do we make a great team or what? You know what I was thinking? Maybe you could paint the kid. We could do a whole series. If only we didn't have to look for jobs. Man, I really wish we had met sooner."

"Yeah," I said, trying not to betray my wariness about these comments in the face of Charlie's obvious enthusiasm. It seemed to me that such a suggestion went too far, reached way beyond our grasp as art students at St. Mike’s. I did wish that Charlie and I had met sooner. Drawing the kid together and then seeing its incarnation in steel fascinated me. But the whole idea of doing a series together struck me as a kind of far-fetched, impractical dream. Something that only real artists did.

Charlie began to talk earnestly about passion and force and about the difficulties of conveying these fluid feelings through rigid steel. I wondered whether Charlie really believed all the stuff he was saying. I thought of making fun of his seriousness, but the warmth of the sunshine and the talk lulled me into a contented happiness that I didn't really understand.

When Charlie talked about giving up his studio work for a good job, I didn't tell him to go for his art, to screw the practicalities, and to make his art because it was the best part of him. I didn't tell him that like weather, art had its scary moments, its ungovernable gods, and its capacity to thrill or frustrate, delight or devastate, enrapture or enrage. No, I didn't tell him any of that because I couldn't even tell myself any of that yet. I agreed with him that it was best to be practical. In fact, I admired him for his practicality.

The westerlies dipped south quickly in late March, bringing an early spring accompanied by long stretches of warm highs and bright, cloudless days. This stretch of weather multiplied the number of excuses that Charlie and I made for missing meteorology. It was too nice out to sit in a stuffy classroom. We could read the book sitting outside in the sun. It would be just like going to class.

In painting class, Matsuda took us outside and told us to pay attention to how the sunlight worked. "The play of shadows," she said mysteriously, "it's all in the play of shadows." But in her other advice she left us no room to speculate. "You all have talent. Now try to face your fears. Work on your art. Go to grad school. Do whatever but keep painting. Just keep at it.” On and on she went, like a woman stuck in her own stationary front.

"Man, Matsuda was on a tirade today," Charlie said.

"Maybe it's the unseasonable weather," I said, joking and with no idea of how near to the truth I was.

"I don't get the whole face your fears thing either. I mean it's putting paint on canvas," Charlie said.

"You have to admit there's something charming about her though," I said. "She's just such a laid-back slob on the outside, and yet inside she has such guts."

The change of seasons had another effect on Charlie and me. In full force we decided to seek out advertising and art graphics jobs. We bought interview suits: Charlie's, a mud brown and mine, a sky blue.

Charlie and I stood in the clothing store stiff and uncomfortable like people who are ready to fly but are stranded at the airport because of icy runway conditions. I hardly recognized myself, let alone Charlie. As we stepped into the street, a gust of wind, caused by eddies from thermal currents superimposing themselves on the main wind flow, blew our plastic-covered suits up into the air knocking us off balance. Charlie cursed.

"Man, this looking for a job stuff sucks. Makes me want to just call my uncle and say hook me up."

"Charlie, you don't really want to do that."

"Yeah, I do, Lou."

I cast around in my mind for a palliative for Charlie’s distress. Much to my surprise I said, "Hey, maybe we should do what Matsuda said, maybe we should just stay in school."

Charlie considered the idea for a moment. Then he said, "It might be good for you, Lou. You haven't been at this as long as me. I mean, I've been doing art for four years now. I know I'm not that good. It would be more debt and for what I could produce, I don't know if it'd be worth it. Hell, I'd probably be better off going to get an MBA—at least that might get me a job."

Charlie had a point. It didn't make sense to pay lots of money to study something like art.

***

When I got home that night, I found Penelope planted on the sofa with a book in her lap.

"Hey, were you out with Charlie, again? I just can't believe you hang out with him so much. Have you looked at him? I mean he's just not clean. It's like he rolls around in mud puddles, spends a lot of time outside in dust storms or something."

"You're exaggerating, Pen."

Penelope raised a blond eyebrow.

"You must be in love with him," she said. "It's the only way to explain how you can put up with that."

"Don't be silly, Pen," I said, as I walked into my room. We're just good friends."

"That's what I used to say about Jeff and me," Penelope called after me.

But I easily dismissed Penelope's comments. Charlie and I were nothing at all like her and Jeff. The two of them were always smiling, as if the world held only cumulus clouds, high pressure systems, and sunshine, a life of eternal spring. As near as I could tell, they never argued, preferring instead to gaze into each other's eyes and whisper contentedly about their future plans: the children, the house, and the dog they would have. Penelope might call that friendship, but it was a far cry from how Charlie and I related. We complained to each other all the time, we whined, we were morose at best. Ours was a darker world beset by low pressure systems and low-hanging nimbostratus clouds, punctuated, it’s true, by laughter and enhanced occasionally with art, but nonetheless decidedly gloomy. Nothing like the bright sunny world of those in love.

A few days later Charlie and I went to a talk entitled “Twenty Ways to Stay Sane While Searching for A Job.”

As often happens in upstate New York in early April, warm, spring-like weather had given way once again to blasts of arctic cold and the cumulonimbus clouds that signal quick-moving, heavy storms. I had an uneasy feeling that other changes were in the works that I couldn't fathom.

On our walk back from the talk, Charlie and I decided we were tired of Al's food and that we should whip up some of his grandmother's spaghetti sauce. We went to the market and took our bags of groceries and our wine over to Charlie's place. We followed the twisting pathway that Charlie had dug amidst the art and rubble of his life to his kitchen. I looked at the piles of dishes and pots.

I said, "Maybe we should cook at my place."

By the time I finished this sentence, Charlie had miraculously pulled a pot, two plates, two wine glasses, two knives, two forks, a cutting board, and a sharp knife out from within the clutter without toppling a single pile and without suggesting, in the least, any effort at actual clean-up. We took the groceries through another path to a pile of books and papers in the corner that Charlie soon revealed to be two chairs and a table. Once again, Charlie did not so much straighten up the mess as he simply redistributed it, closing off the path to his bedroom in the process.

Charlie and I heaved the bags on the table and slumped into the chairs.

A rainbow became visible out the window, shining amidst a lightened sky. Both Charlie and I gaped at the sudden vision of vivid color.

"I've been thinkin about what Matsuda says," Charlie said then. "I don't think she's right about the genius thing. But maybe staying in school is a good idea."

I felt myself grinning at Charlie.

"Yeah, I think I'll apply. You are too, right, Lou?” Charlie said.

I found myself nodding. I couldn't stop grinning. Charlie grinned back at me. We sat there watching the rainbow with those dumb smiles on our faces for what seemed like ages. Finally, Charlie said, "I'm hungry. We better get rolling."

As I began to cut up the garlic, onions, fresh basil, and parsley, Charlie worked on getting water into the pot and the pot onto the stove to boil—tasks, which I could hear and imagine but couldn’t see, for my vision of Charlie was obscured by a large brick and mortar sculpture entitled "A Meditation on Mystery.” I glanced out the window. The rainbow had disappeared, and once again cumulonimbus clouds dominated the horizon. Thunder sounded, alternating with several large crashes coming from the kitchen, which made me fear that Charlie might soon be buried alive. I wanted to run to Charlie's aid, but I worried that my movements might hasten rather than slow his burial. I took comfort in the continual cursing that emanated from behind “A Meditation on Mystery,” figuring that so long as Charlie could curse, he must also be able to breathe, and counting on the fact that, if he did run into more than he could handle, I would be able to hear his cries for help. Much to my relief, after about fifteen minutes, Charlie emerged safely from around the right side of "The Meditation on Mystery," just as I was finishing chopping up the garlic to say, "Well, the pasta's on. I think we can start on the sauce."

Charlie disappeared again—the crashes were fewer in number and not nearly as loud, and only thunder rumbled in the distance. I took solace from the fact that most of the time Charlie sang in a mock operating voice “Oh Solo Mia.”

After about twenty minutes Charlie re-emerged, sauce in one hand, pasta in the other.

"Ya know Lou, it occurred to me that I can't live like this forever. Really, I'm living on borrowed time, and sometime soon I'm going to have to straighten out and fly right."

I looked at the clutter that was Charlie's kitchen, and I found his statement difficult to argue with, though I was inclined to contradict him. So I said, "Well, I don't know about flying right, but you might want to be able to see your floor sometime, I guess."

***

During Easter break, Charlie and I planned to stay at school and use the library and career resources center to send out scores of resumes and cover letters. But during the break, while Charlie followed the plan, I upbraided myself for not being responsible, as I slathered paint onto canvases. I decided to surprise Charlie by painting the kid fighting off the world with only a tattered umbrella. I thought it might make up for my earlier lack of enthusiasm about Charlie's suggestion that we do a series together.

The only interview I managed to get I ruined by showing up with paint-splattered hands (I had only meant to do some dabbing before I went and then—too late—I realized I was out of turpentine).

The rest of the semester, thick nimbostratus clouds blanketed the sky, and it rained almost nonstop. Charlie spent more and more time sending out cover letters and resumes and going to job interviews. I tried to work on cover letters, but I kept sketching a self I didn't recognize on the clean white paper instead.

Charlie didn't meet me for coffee so much anymore, maybe once a week. Often he showed up freshly shaven and in his interview suit, looking awake even. He didn’t linger like he used to, so I began attending meteorology class more frequently. I thought I might be able to understand the reason for all the rain. Instead, the class covered a unit on light, explaining mirages and auroras. Charlie and I still hung out together at the weekly parties that friends from the art department threw. We also fell into the habit of going to see a movie together at the cheap theater on Sunday and then out to Al's for coffee.

One Sunday Charlie and I had reluctantly sat through a revival of Singing in The Rain—a joke on the part of the theater owners that we found lame. I didn’t think of the cleaner and clean-cut Charlie who sat beside me as the “real Charlie,” and I believed that once Charlie had his job he would revert to his slovenly ways, his true self.

"I never thought getting a job would be so hard," Charlie said. "I'm really thinking about calling my uncle."

"Oh, Charlie, don't do that."

"I know I'd hate it. But it would only be for a year, maybe two. Then I could get something more in my line."

"Maybe you'll get into the grad program."

"Nah, I'm not that good, Lou. You've seen my grades."

"Why do you always say that?" I yelled, surprising even myself.

Charlie looked at me a bit shocked. "Geez, Lou, take it easy. I'm just trying to be practical."

"I'm sorry," I said, but I wasn't sure I meant it. But I felt as if I should mean it, as if I should be more supportive of Charlie's quest for a job.

I said, "You've been working hard, Charlie. I know you'll get the job you want by the end of the semester."

But my forecast proved to be too optimistic. Though Charlie got calls for three more interviews, none of them resulted in the job that by then Charlie desperately wanted.

"I can't believe I didn't get even one offer. I mean I've been sending out resumes to like my third-tier choices, you know? Companies that two months ago I wouldn't have spit on."

Charlie and I were sitting at Al's three days before finals. Charlie was wearing a new interview suit and what he called a “power tie.” The tie, I thought, is just something Charlie’s required to wear as he looks for a job. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be caught dead in one. In the last week, the steady rains, which had averaged two inches per day, had finally stopped. But the stratonimbus clouds had darkened so that only the slightest difference seemed to separate night and day. I tried to cheer Charlie up.

"Well, we might not even graduate if we don't pass meteorology. It might be good that you don't have a job. That way you're saved the embarrassment of explaining how you don't actually have a degree."

Panic about the meteorology final had set in. Charlie had not gone to class since receiving a D+ on his midterm. I had a slightly better attendance record and a C- on the midterm, but I felt even less confident.

"Meteorology's not exactly rocket science," Charlie said. "Our other classes have to take precedence."

I thought that Charlie's comments might be wrong, but I couldn't figure out why. So I agreed that we shouldn't spend any more time than was necessary on meteorology. We decided to pull an all-nighter, finishing just before our 9 a.m. final. As scheduled, we met Wednesday night at Charlie's place to study. On my walk over, sheet lightning, too far in the distance for its thunder to be heard, flashed. Only two blocks from Charlie’s, the release of updrafts of air that held a significant amount of rain gave way, making for a cloudburst.

I arrived sopping wet at Charlie’s apartment, though I hardly recognized it when I walked in.

"Charlie, I can see the bottom of your sink. I never knew it had a bottom," I said. "And you have a rug."

Charlie ignored me with great drama and stretched out on his bed, the Meteorology and You book in his hand. I sat on his desk chair.

I twirled about on the chair as Charlie quizzed me on the causes of tornadoes, cyclones, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.

I'm happy, I thought twirling one way. Back the other way I spun, thinking I am going to fail this meteorology final tomorrow, and I just don't care. As my chair came to a stop, this odd juxtaposition of feelings attracted my attention. How can I be about to screw up so badly and still be so happy? It's not like me. An answer occurred to me, you're in love with Charlie. I questioned this thought immediately, me, in love with Charlie? Only to have the truth float right back to me, I’m in love with Charlie. I'm in love with Charlie. This last thought echoed in my mind, as if it had never occurred to me before, which, of course, it hadn't. No, not until that moment had I thought of Charlie as anything more than my friend.

When I tell people about this moment, they don't always understand. I don’t know what to tell them. Maybe I was too worried about the future, too intent on having fun, or too afraid to acknowledge what was really going on. Or maybe I didn't know myself well enough to recognize myself in love. Maybe love just hits that way sometimes. I don't know.

But in that moment when I looked at Charlie, who had stuck his feet swathed in dingy white socks up onto the dusty wall and was trying to jumpstart himself into a headstand, I knew that I loved him. A slob and an idiot, I thought. Unbelievable.

Then I felt a sudden rush of tenderness for Charlie that was soon followed by an urgent desire to join Charlie on his bed, to trace his lips with my fingers, to intertwine my arms and legs with his, and to feel him get hard beneath me.

"Hey, Lou, did you ever try this when you were a kid?" Charlie said.

"Charlie," I said, "we do have a final tomorrow.” I said this harshly, trying too hard not to reveal my new feelings.

My tone startled Charlie who peeked his head out from around his arm and said, "Are you trying to tell me that the night before a final in a class we haven't been to the whole semester might not be the best time to show you how I used to get into a headstand when I was ten?"

The words "I love you" didn't seem the proper response to this query, so I stifled them. I decided Charlie and I didn't have time to fall into each other’s arms, that it was more important for both Charlie and me to concentrate on passing the meteorology final and graduating from college. There would be plenty of time later to think about love.

Thunder exploded like an unforeseen car crash—loud and sudden. Ribbon lightning with its multiple discharges and several jagged streaks flashed outside the window. Both Charlie and I jumped a little from our respective positions. In mid-jump, I swear I caught sight of an odd mix of terror and exhilaration in Charlie's eyes and in my own eyes that reflected back to me from the window right next to Charlie's head.

Splashing through puddles, Charlie and I sloshed to the meteorology final, swigging coffee the whole way. A piney, mossy after-storm smell was in the air, and after hours of weather facts, I indulged in the thought that I loved Charlie, that we would do great art together. I hugged that thought to myself. I thought about telling Charlie right there and then that I loved him. But I convinced myself it wasn't the right time or place.

I even decided that I wasn't telling Charlie how I felt because it might freak him out too much. Instead, I said to Charlie that we should hug for good luck. I gave Charlie an extra-long hug.

After we separated, Charlie looked at me for a moment, puzzled.

Then he said, "Listen, Lou, we really are gonna do OK on this final, ya know. We'll be fine. Then you just have the art history final, which I know you'll ace. Then tonight we celebrate. Right?"

We planned to meet at my apartment that night to mark the end of our college years. I had decided to show Charlie my painting of the kid and tell him how I felt then. Charlie and me and our art. That will be perfect, I thought.

I felt edgy as I walked home from the art history final. The excess of water vapor in the air had caused fog to set in, and I found it hard to see where I was going. I was stewing about how to tell Charlie that I loved him, really loved him, not like before with Jon when I thought I had been in love.

When I got home, there were two messages on my machine for me. The first message was from Matsuda telling me that the department had a spot for me in its master's program if I was interested. I wondered if Charlie had gotten the same call. Charlie's voice came from the machine then.

"Lou, my uncle called this morning just after the final. His company has an opening. They want to interview me tomorrow and have me start the next day. I'm sorry we can’t celebrate tonight. I'll call you when I get settled in."

As Charlie's voice trailed off, I could hear gale forces winds whipping against the building, and I felt a sudden sadness start to fill me, but I brushed it aside and went to the living room to try to get Penelope to go out with me. I didn't feel like celebrating, but I wanted to prove to myself that Charlie's leaving didn't mean that much to me.

Penelope didn't want to go.

“Are you crazy?” she said. “Do you hear that wind out there?”

I went back into my room, and as my eyes fell on the painting of the kid, I began to weep.

***

When Charlie didn't call within the next day or two, I assumed he was busy getting settled.

The temperature climbed to 80 degrees, a rare event in early June in upstate New York. With the heat came 40 percent relative humidity, sheets of broken cumulus clouds, and scattered cirrus clouds.

For the next few days, I couldn't wait for Charlie to call so I could tell him that I loved him. I had visions of us carrying out a long-distance relationship, which struck me as romantic. I'd go to see Charlie in the city, and we'd visit art galleries together. He'd come back to St. Mike’s, and we'd revisit our old stomping grounds. We'd send each other our sketches through the mail.

When Charlie didn't call after three days, I started to have doubts. Maybe I didn't really love Charlie. Maybe I had just made up all those feelings. Maybe I had just been under a lot of stress.

As I waited, I should have been looking for a summer job to supplement the loan money I was living off, but I found myself painting or just lying on the apartment roof, baking in the sun, reading magazines, sketching, and trying to figure out my feelings for Charlie.

After staying oppressively steady for days, the relative humidity finally dropped to 15 percent at the end of the second week. That’s when Charlie called.

He apologized for not calling sooner.

"Man, working five days a week is a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. What's worse, I haven't even thought about art."

We talked for three hours that night—rehashing old complaints and inventing new ones. On the tip of my tongue laid the speech I had alternately rehearsed and rejected during the previous two weeks. "Charlie, I have something I have to tell you. I think I'm in love with you."

But I never managed to make the speech. When I got off the phone, I couldn't figure out why. Clearly, Charlie and I were in love. All my doubts of the last weeks had simply been silly. I had to tell him. I'd call him tomorrow, I decided.

The next day, I sat by the phone telling myself to dial Charlie's number and tell him, just tell him that I loved him. Just as I was reaching for the receiver, the phone rang. It was Charlie.

"Hey, Lou, how ya doin? Listen I'm just calling to invite you down for a big Fourth of July barbeque. Today I found out my parents are going out of town. So whattya say? Can you make it? I can't wait to see you."

Charlie talked a mile a minute about the party, who was going to come, about the best way to get from the Adirondacks to Throggs Neck, about how he'd take me to get the best homemade pizza in the world, and about the view of the bridges at night.

I should interrupt him and tell him how I feel, I kept thinking that until Charlie said, "Man, I've been babbling on. I'd better go. I still have other people to invite.”

"Wait. Charlie,” I said.

“Yeah?" he said.

"Nothing. I'll tell you later. You have to go."

As I put the receiver down, I didn't think that I was afraid to tell Charlie that I loved him. That would have struck me as ludicrous. Love, I thought then, didn't make people afraid of each other, it only drew them to one another. I told myself that my failure to tell Charlie how I felt had to do with my special sensitivity to time and place. It just wasn't proper to tell someone that you loved him over the phone, you should do it in person. Since the Fourth wasn't too far away, I decided I could wait.

While I waited, I began a series of paintings.

Any artist will tell you that she paints in a trance, that during the actual work the unconscious mind takes over. Only after she puts the paintbrush down, does the conscious mind return to gaze at the painting and think about what's been done.

I painted in such a trance in my room with the shades drawn, blocking out all signs of the weather. Once I put the paintbrush down, I couldn't bear to leave the trance I was in, to let go of my unconscious state and think about the return of my conscious mind and the figures of the man and woman that appeared on every canvas. As quickly as possible, I'd turn the canvas I was working on toward the wall and force myself to forget about them until the next painting trance.

Penelope popped her head into the room sometimes and said, "Louise, you should get out into the air more, let the sun warm your face, at least see the sky once in a while."

I ignored Penelope's advice.

During the weeks before the Fourth, Charlie and I talked three or four times a week as the temperature and relative humidity climbed ever upward—each conversation confirming for me how silly my doubts were, how much we clicked, how good we would be together.

The weekend of the Fourth arrived with the temperature at an all-time high of 100 and relative humidity close to 70 percent. I drove with all the windows in my car open to Charlie's house. He greeted me with a kiss on the cheek. As we made our way up the walk, a smiling girl with dark black hair emerged from the house.

"It's so nice to finally meet you, Lou. Charlie's told me so much about you,” she said.

"Lou, this is Molly," Charlie said.

I figured that Molly must be some friend of Charlie's. Maybe his best friend's little sister or something. She probably has a crush on him. How cute, I thought.

Molly had, in fact, gone to high school with Charlie. As we sat sweating and eating chips, Charlie and Molly told me stories from their high school days while Charlie and I told stories from our last semester together. In the middle of one of these stories about Charlie and me unsuccessfully playing frisbee in constantly shifting winds after our meteorology midterm, Molly moved from her seat next to Charlie on the couch to sit on his lap.

I tried not to stare at this move. I tried to continue laughing about the story that Charlie and I were telling. I tried to think of reasons why Molly might be sitting in Charlie's lap other than the obvious one.

When Molly left—Molly giving Charlie a hug and a kiss on the lips—I asked Charlie how long he and Molly had been together.

"Oh, a couple of weeks. But we went out for a year during high school. It kinda sucks with both of us still living at home."

"How come you never mentioned her in any of our phone conversations?"

"I don’t know. It never seemed to come up."

"Are you happy with Molly?" I asked, wanting to ask him if he loved her.

"Yeah, she's a sweetheart," Charlie said.

I felt stunned and stood there mute, sweat dripping down my back and legs.

Charlie took me to the basement where I was to sleep.

"All my sculptures are cluttering it up, but it's pretty nice, don't you think?” Charlie said, as we walked down the stairs. “My father redid it when I went to college."

I tried to concentrate on the words that Charlie was saying, but it was as if he were speaking through a thick fog that blocked sound instead of vision.

Surrounded by what seemed like ghosts of Charlie's artwork, I tossed and turned on the couch. Even with two fans running full blast, I still felt hot and couldn't sleep. I was mad, but I didn't think I should be. I felt as if the Charlie I knew had been replaced by this Charlie with Molly attached to him. It all seemed so wrong, just wrong. But Charlie said he was happy, and he was my friend, and I had to accept that, didn't I?

There was no dip in sight for the 100-degree temperatures. At the party, Charlie and I spent a lot of time together griping and grousing as usual. During those conversations, I could believe that Molly was a mirage visible only because of the heat. And I'd let myself feel happy. Then she'd pop up only too real to pull Charlie away for a dance or a smooch. And then I felt again the shock and anger that I had first felt when Molly had placed herself on Charlie's lap.

Right before I left on Monday night, Charlie and I were eating subs left over from that day's hangover party. With the electricity out, there were no fans, and sweat poured into my eyes, stinging them.

"Charlie," I said, "why didn't you tell me about Molly during those phone calls?"

"I don't know, Lou," he said.

"But I asked you what you did with your weekends and stuff, and you never mentioned Molly."

"Yeah, well things were just getting started, you know."

He's right, I thought. We were just friends. He didn't have to tell me about Molly. Still, I decided, things had to change.

"Look, Charlie, I need some space, you know?" I said.

"Whattya mean?"

"I mean maybe you shouldn't call me so much anymore."

"But why, Lou? You and I have such great conversations."

"It's just . . . you have Molly now and . . . I have no one."

"But Lou . . ." Charlie said and stopped suddenly. "Oh, Lou, you didn't think you and me, did you? You did, didn't you? Ah geez, Lou. I wish I had known. . ."

I wanted to ask him if he loved her, really loved her. But all I could say was, "Are you happy with her?"

"Yeah, Lou. I am."

"I think I should go now, Charlie."

"We can still be buddies right, Lou?" Charlie said, grabbing my arm.

"Sure, Charlie. We can," I said.

I walked out the door to my car, feeling as if I had left a part of myself behind. As I drove, I had the strange sensation that the hot wind might reach in and tear me out of the car and spin me every which way so that I might never find my way back home.

Back in my apartment with Penelope, nothing seemed the same. The slightest breezes worried me. They seemed to threaten to loft my feet from the earth. I didn't know what to do.

Summer storms alternated with temperatures in the 80s and high relative humidity. Charlie still called me but less frequently than before my Fourth of July visit. Our conversations had a strain in them that they had never had before. I wanted to complain as I usually did but about him going out with Molly. But I knew I couldn't do that. Trying to be supportive, I would ask about Molly. Charlie would resist such talk, trying to get us on to other topics. Until, finally, we both decided that it was easier to hang up.

One August day when Hurricane Anne was passing off the coast, Charlie called to give me the address and phone number for his new apartment in White Plains. The rest of the month I didn't hear from him.

That’s when I got mad at him for blowing me off, for abandoning me. He wasn't being a very good friend. With September and school two days away, I decided I had to track Charlie down and settle things with him once and for all.

As I drove, rain and gale force winds battered my car. And I tried to decide how to approach Charlie. Should I just tell him he was a jerk for not telling me about Molly sooner and for not calling me anymore? Or should I tell him that I love him and that we belong together? That I meant to tell him sooner, but how could I love someone who was going out with someone else?

I found his new apartment and waited for him to come home from his new job. The rain had stopped, though the wind continued to shift frequently. I got out of my car to watch Charlie parallel park. I called to him when he got out of his car.

He turned. For a moment I didn't think Charlie had gotten out of Charlie's car. This clean-shaven person with a buzz cut, wearing a suit and tie couldn't be Charlie. He walked over to me, gave me a hug, and said with Charlie's voice, "Lou, how ya doin? I've been meaning to call you. You look good. You should have told me you were coming."

I stood there stunned, my hair whipping into my face and eyes. I tried to bat it down with my hand and focus on Charlie's face to reassure myself that this hairless man standing before me was, indeed, Charlie.

"I really wish you had told me you were coming, Lou. I've got to go to a business dinner tonight. I can't talk long. But c'mon in. I'll get you some coffee or something."

I registered these comments from some distance. I’d imagined words of recrimination or reconciliation. I let Charlie lead me up the concrete steps to the brick building and down the hallway to his apartment. Inside the apartment, I looked around searching for signs of Charlie. No clothes lying around, no underwear beneath my feet, no stack of Rolling Stone magazines piled in a corner, no half-finished brick and mortar pieces.

"Your art?" I asked.

"Had to quit it for now. My mother got tired of all that stuff in her nice redone basement, and there was no room for it here, so I sold the power tools and extra materials and gave the art pieces to various friends."

Charlie looked away from me then out the window and said, "I'll get back to doing art again sooner or later. I just have to get myself established."

Charlie went into the kitchen for the coffee.

The words "later" and "established" floated inside my head.

I sat down on the black leather couch. I couldn't imagine the Charlie that I knew here in this spotless, black-and-white room, though he just then returned with my coffee in his hand. I told myself to focus on his face.

"You know, my days at St. Mike’s seem like a really long time ago."

He paused, staring out the window.

"It's not bad here in the city either—it's probably about 10 degrees warmer here than upstate. I mean today it’s lousy weather everywhere. But I really think the air is thinner back at St. Mike’s. Now I know the Adirondacks are not known to be that high up . . ."

He started to talk about city weather compared to St. Mike’s. He said something about the gulf stream.

I couldn't believe I was sitting there talking about the weather with Charlie. Even though we had studied meteorology for a whole semester, Charlie and I had never made small talk about the weather before, had never needed to. Not ever.

The phone rang. Charlie picked up.

"I can't talk now," he said. "A friend from college stopped by. Yeah. Yeah. Lou. OK."

Charlie put the phone down, stood by the window again, not looking at me.

"Who was that Charlie?" I asked.

"Molly."

"You really should have told me about her sooner," I said.

"I said I was sorry, Louise. Besides you and I were just friends."

This sentence hung in the air. It felt like a bullet, an accusation, and an unquestionable defense. I couldn't dispute it. It had been our agreement, our compact, our raison d'être from the first day we met. Yet I wanted to scream. I wanted to say, "but things changed for us. I know you felt it, too. I love you, Charlie. I do. I know you love me, too. Why don't you just admit it?” I looked around at the clean apartment. I thought about the phone call from Molly, and I lost my nerve.

I don’t think anything would have changed if I had told Charlie that day that I loved him. But sometimes I think about Charlie in that clean room, and I think about Charlie back in his filthy apartment at St. Mike’s, and I think that Charlie had understood even less than me—he hadn't understood art or weather or love. And I should have at least tried to tell him the one thing that I did know—I loved him. But I guess I didn't know it well enough, and I was only able to understand it after it slipped away. Kind of like you only see the significance of a hurricane after it's over, and you see all the damage it's done.

"I'm sorry. You should have told me you were coming,” Charlie said. “I really have to go.”

He walked me out to the car. “We'll have to get together when we have more time and talk about old times. We'll have to call each other," he said.

Then he was gone. I was back in my car.

***

I began my first graduate classes two days after I returned from my last visit with Charlie. The air had a heavy feeling due to a relative humidity close to 85 percent though the temperature had dropped to a cool 70 degrees. I corrected papers for Professor Matsuda. People talked to me as if nothing was wrong. I tried to believe that nothing was wrong. I tried to act as if nothing was wrong. I tried to tell myself that Charlie was right. We had only ever been friends. But I couldn't help thinking that things went dreadfully wrong. I should be able to think of some way to get us close again, I thought, but I couldn't.

I spent more and more time in my room painting in my trance, ignoring Penelope's exhortations to let the sunshine in and hiding my canvases from myself.

None of it makes any sense, I kept thinking.

Until finally one day, as the leaves began to fall off the trees, I found myself enraged. I understood for the first time the importance of the weather (though the nuances would be lost on me for some time to come). I walked around telling anyone who would listen that Charlie had left me because of the goddamn weather. I couldn't stop saying it. Always following the declaration by exclaiming, "What a bastard."

Penelope looked at me a little oddly when I said my mantra. She said it sounded crazy to her but that you couldn't expect a lot from a man. She said that I really should get on with my life, that all men were pigs, but that I should find another one. Once I found another one, she said, I would be fine.

"Besides" she added, "you only knew him for one semester anyway. And you never even kissed."

I decided Penelope was right that there must be something wrong with me. And I had to just snap myself out of it. I tried to find another guy, but when I talked with other guys, I kept finding myself preoccupied by thoughts of the weather. I'd find myself gazing out the window, unable to follow the conversation, trying to figure out temperature, cloud cover, relative humidity, wind direction, and type.

“He left me because of the weather,” I said. The weather. Of all things. But despite this official scorn, I couldn't help taking a long, hard look at the weather. At first, I said to myself, that I was naturally curious. I tried to avoid assessments or worse, comparisons. I told myself that the latter—the comparison—had a pointlessness to it—like apples and oranges.

But slowly I admitted to myself that the weather had its fascinations. And I thought that Charlie had been trying to tell me in his own way about the weather that day I had visited him in that clean apartment.

I broke out my old meteorology book. I familiarized myself with the weather's vital statistics, and I began to record them every day—temperature, relative humidity, wind direction, cloud type, and cover. Not satisfied with the basics, I got other books out of the library. I read about dew points, pressure systems, barometric readings, hygrometers. I read about tornadoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, and earthquakes.

Predicting disaster is the key to catastrophe management, the books said. Tornadoes are the natural disasters that are the most difficult to predict. They have an average warning time of only about eleven minutes. Many times there is no warning at all.

I read the scientific reports on sunshine index correlations with mood and sleep patterns. The smallest weather signs, it seemed, could have undeniably large effects.

I read and read and read until I understood. Then just after the first snowfall that November, with temperatures in the teens, the humidity high, cloud cover virtually nil, and a pretty stable high-pressure system in place, I called Charlie.

Just after the initial awkward how-do-you-do's, I asked him about the weather where he lived.

He said, "It's sunny.” I asked him if there were clouds in the sky.

He said he didn't know.

I told him to check.

He asked me what I was getting at.

I said, "Just tell me."

He said, "Yes, Lou there are clouds in the sky."

"Well, what kind?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said. "Why do you care?"

"Are they the fluffy, fat kind, the thin, feathery types, or the rolling, angry ones?"

"Why are you asking me about the weather?" His voice expressed a mixture of irritation, alarm, and disbelief.

"Would you say that they're lined up in rows, scattered in random puffs, or blanketed across the sky?"

"Puffs," he said, resigned.

"Do you know what the approximate temperature is there?"

"No."

"Is the wind blowing? And would you say . . ."

"Lou, is this what you called me for? To ask about the weather?"

He said this as if weather meant nothing to him, as if it wasn't important at all.

"I just don't understand. Are you OK? Why are you asking me about the weather? Is Penelope still around?"

"Yes, Penelope and I still hang out," I said. "Last Wednesday, in fact, with gale force winds and frequent temperature shifts . . . "

"Look, Lou, I'm sorry. I 've had a long day at work, and if you don't stop this weather stuff, I am going to have to hang up on you. Do you understand?” He spoke to me as if I was a child and a misbehaving one at that.

His tone gave me pause. Sometimes, it occurred to me, the beacon in the darkness must not be able to see its own light. I saw that he was not a willing participant, that he was still an unbeliever despite having been the one who enlightened me. But I wanted him to see—to see—what he had shown me, and my mind raced for ways to convey to him this truth that I had found. Should I explicitly spell it out for him? Should I try to demonstrate it? Perhaps an ad hominem argument was called for? Or an appeal to absolute reason? My mind darted in these different directions as I sensed him waiting, just waiting on the other end of the phone line. I said, "You see the weather. It's more important than you think."

"Oh yeah? How's that?" he said, exasperation in his voice.

At that moment, some part of me knew that I had taken the wrong tack, chosen the wrong argument, spoken the wrong words, but I couldn’t stop.

"Well, the weather affects a great many things—recently scientists have talked about moods, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. Of course, weather research is only in its infancy. In times to come . . ."

"Look, Lou, I'm tired. I have to go. You should talk to Penelope about this. OK?"

My mind registered that the question required a suitable response. I heard my voice just audibly whisper "OK." And I listened as I heard "OK, then bye" and my soft reply. "Bye."

A few weeks after this conversation, I would fling open the shades and paint with the sunlight pouring into my room full blast, my tears streaming down my face and mixing with the paint. To the blanks that surrounded the figures on my canvases, I'd add the sun, the rain, the wind, the clouds, the thunder, and lightning. When I finished my paintings, I'd stare through my tears at those canvases with all the scrutiny I could muster. I'd see the odd contortions of the figures' bodies and the terror in their eyes, and I'd understand the true importance of the weather. I'd understand that Charlie hadn't really left me because of the weather. He hadn't really left me at all. We had never even gotten together in the first place. Not really, anyway.

I'd look back on my time with Charlie and see that unbeknownst to me I had been working against forces from within me and from the outside world. These forces like the forces of the weather (especially when one is in the midst of the elements) can be unpredictable, of unknown origins, and incomprehensible. And no matter how much I wanted things to have turned out otherwise, I wanted Charlie and me to be together doing art, wanted things to be any way but the way they were. It was like wanting different weather. It wasn't going to happen.

Yes, eventually I understood all of that. But that day when the line clicked off, I knew it meant the loss of something, and I did the only thing that seemed possible. I placed the receiver back in the cradle, and I sat staring out the window until I realized that the wind had switched directions, and the cirrus clouds were moving the opposite way, signaling a change.

About the Author

Mary Lannon

Website

Mary Lannon's short stories have been published at Story, New World Writing, and Woven Tale Press. A recipient of a 2020 Queens Council on the Arts grant and a 2021 City Artist Corps grant, she runs a reading series at her neighborhood bookstore in Queens and teaches at Nassau Community College in Long Island, NY. She is currently at work on a second novel and is looking for a publishing home for her first novel.