By Christie Cochrell
It was a lilac year, their last year of high school, the year Rosa’s mother was dying. All that spring Franny felt lost, left out, unable to get close to Rosa, her oldest and dearest friend. Worse still, she felt resentful too, for all the losses of things slipping past while her attention was elsewhere—knowing already she would never get them back. Not spring itself nor the quickly narrowing days she should have been savoring slowly, drop by drop, soaking up thirstily through every pore. When she was old and somewhere far away, trying to hold onto what had been, she’d want them entire, vivid, worth having lived.
Only the lilacs were indelible, were immanent. They were an ache, a dusky purple fever dream that spoke of voluptuous sleep and slow awakenings. A haunting, roaming Santa Fe that spring. Lyric, holy. The grief that settled in her throat. Whickering horses, all withers and flanks, escaped down a moon-flooded road. A murky River Styx or Lake of Avalon on which she’d been ferried back to the old world, a time in which that was the only world anyone knew, lilacs spilling down hillsides above schoolbook seas. The new world not yet come out of its fragile, brittle shell, fragments of shell in everything they ate. Omelets with spring asparagus and eggshell, Rosa’s eternal cakes with shell brittle as bits of bone baked in, remembering but fending off what lay ahead.
Her father’s homing pigeons had been restless that past month as well, dreaming not lilacs like Franny in her feverish bed, but flight, cupolas, the remotest purple hills in which foreign armies had gathered once, hidden inside their folds as in the soft material of a cloak. The Verdi choruses rising around, upward, like valiant, feathered wings—noble, grieving, bound for another land. The pigeon loft something her father, Nevin, visited when not litigating for human rights. She couldn’t understand his need, the seeming incongruity. How cruel it seemed to be to the racing pigeons, which followed Earth’s magnetic field, but were confounded now by mobile phone towers. No longer bearing messages that could mean life or death for villages or whole populations, but only sent away for sport, the distances they traveled often meaning death now for the birds. Franny avoided the loft in the garden as much as possible, but admired the birds’ luminous feathers, inquiring eyes. The worlds contained in them.
Rosa’s mother, Ana-Laura Sandoval, was kept watch on in her dark-curtained room by her many sisters, alongside watchful santos carved by hand from cottonwood somewhere up near the Colorado border. She was coaxed to eat, to talk to other, distant relatives on someone’s always present phone. She was loved unreservedly, with laughter and bawdy banter and prayer beads.
Feeling superfluous among the buzzing swarm of women, in her closed-down state, Rosa had taken herself off to the kitchen and tried to keep her mind off things by baking cakes. First for the bake sale for the hospice where she’d started working weekends, then just because—from desperation, for distraction, something both automatic and precise to keep her from falling apart. She found new recipes, was daunted by nothing. Tres leches, flourless chocolate chili cake, a knockoff of The Shed’s popular mocha cake. Vanilla poppyseed, vanilla pound cake with lavender, with grapefruit, with rose petals or rose water, with cardamom and pistachios. Texas turtle sheet cake. Intoxicated Harvey Wallbanger cake. Apricot upside-down cake, with frozen apricots this time of year from the tree out behind her mother’s clothesline.
Sugar for shock, Franny had read, but Rosa’s new obsession seemed out of proportion. Largely, she knew, so her friend didn’t have to leave the kitchen, or pretend to talk. Hiding in grief, in denial, in what her mother had taught her in seventh grade among the bowls and cake pans and measuring cups.
They had rehearsals, for a while. Franny was playing Rosalind, in As You Like It, disguised as a young man. Lovelorn, finding love poems hanging on trees. Rosa was funny Phebe—a natural comic once. But she dropped out two weeks before the opening, leaving Franny feel abandoned and oddly conspicuous. And then they had to put up with the irritating Melinda Fraser, who changed the whole mood of the play and upset the dynamic between characters.
Rosa gave up fencing, her warrior magic. She didn’t show up at senior ditch day, in the old barn at Ernie Luhan’s house near the rodeo grounds, where their low-key classmate practiced rockabilly music with his band; or at the school picnic at Glorieta, though she sent along a sheet cake. Franny again felt strangely out of her element at both, sitting quietly on the ground, her back against the barn wall or a sun-warmed log, and smiling automatically when it seemed expected of her. She watched the others laugh and talk and grill burgers with roasted green chile and smoky southwest cheddar, the savor as native as lilacs, and found herself repeating in her head the words of Celia in As You Like It referring to her childhood friend.
“[We] learned, played, ate together,
And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno’s swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.”
She’d always been awkward as just herself, with no high energy best friend to buffer and inspire her. She also had the guilty feeling now that she oughtn’t enjoy herself too much. She closed her eyes to hide the tears that came when smiles wouldn’t.
Rosa wasn’t around either for the visit of the college representative from Yale, or the actor invited back by Jerry Neal, their drama teacher, who had attended Yale and gotten great reviews in a revival of Equus off Broadway. He would be there to see their play, and wanted to take Franny out one night to El Farol, to eat Spanish tapas and talk about her possibilities. The smell of lilacs idled heavy in the air before and after, as they talked and talked. The purple of the Pyrenees, of wisdom, mystery, and magic; the bruised powerful Tyrian color; the doomed sails of Theseus color, a shade royal and doomed, forbidden in Japan, treasured by the Mixtec, scorned by the Roman poet Horace in describing prose. The color of thunderstorms in the canyons of the cliff dwellings at Bandelier, in the storm-bruised mountains nearby, in the sky to the north on summer opera nights when passions were alive and danger in the air.
And dropping her off afterwards at home Robbie Marion kissed her on the doorstep, not long but intently, and afterwards said lightly “You have witchcraft in your lips” (Henry V, another of his roles), despite the difference in ages, the somehow forbidden high school/university divide, and Franny felt all Shakespeare’s kings seducing her, the way forward precarious, divine. But almost unbearably lonely too, she thought, closing the door gently, fingers lingering on the wood he’d touched before turning to go.
Rosa was absent the next day when the French class sat comfortably together (but always aware of the parting of ways about to befall them) in the nearly summer sunshine in the quad, then walked together up the road to St. John’s College to watch the 1960s film Phaedra, with Melina Mercouri as the yearning Greek stepmother, sultry as the dusky lilacs which hung in the air telling of forbidden pleasures, incestuous secrets, fatal betrayals setting in motion great tragedies yet to unspool. Franny thought of Robbie (conveyor of kings) in the darkness of the little theater as the foreign language took her and the filmlight rippled like shot-silk lake water across the tender bare skin of her arms, in what was May, the last week of her senior year, and suddenly no longer sweater weather; languorous springtime, suddenly uncharted and dangerously new.
For the longest time Franny and Rosa had both said they were going to stay in Santa Fe for college—Franny at St. John’s, Rosa at the Community College to study nursing. But without anything having been mentioned when the time came to make decisions, that had changed, and Franny had applied (treacherously, without admitting she’d done so, until she had her acceptances in hand) to Yale and Syracuse and Northeastern, talked into trying, anyway, by Jerry Neal, her mentor and near friend, who said he knew she’d do wonderful things in a good drama program.
“Give it a go, in any case—you wouldn’t want to have missed out, later.”
The lilacs poured their hearts out now, all over town, but Rosa kept her heart concealed from Franny as she did from everybody else. Carefully guarded, closed away. That hurt badly; Franny felt unfairly excluded. She could have done something to help, she’d started to protest that several times, but never did—not wanting to be snubbed outright, knowing that would hurt still more.
While at the same time studying half-heartedly for final exams, Franny was practicing Fauré’s small sweet song, the Romance sans paroles, on the upright piano in the dining room, to play at Baccalaureate the Friday before Commencement, to mark the end of high school, which she’d loved, the end of everything. And secretly—yes, wordlessly—for Ana-Laura Sandoval, Rosa’s mother, who had been Franny’s first piano teacher starting back in seventh grade, and ever since a kind of second mother, fleshing out her own mother’s good sense and mathematical gifts with a bottomless love of music, of the kitchen arts, of everyone around. Things Franny knew would steady her through stormy passages someday, as cake baking seemed to be doing Rosa.
But in the end, not having the sagacity that might have let her find her way, she did inestimable wrong those last days of that final spring—missing out her chance to coax from the muddle a glimmering of grace.
Learning from a mutual friend the last day of the play that Mrs. Sandoval was in the hospital, Franny skipped the cast party just afterwards to go and visit her—offending Jerry Neal and several other friends. Rosa had been sharp with her when she’d called in the afternoon to find out how things were going, and she wanted to prove she was there for them all, no matter what. But Rosa made it clear that she didn’t want Franny there when she ventured into the ICU, trembly from apprehension and not knowing what she’d find.
“She’s in and out of sleep, and too sedated to know you. There’s no point in sticking around.”
Franny slept little that night, and felt crushed further the next day, learning from Gareth Marion (who had played Silvius) as they headed into their final Physics class that his brother Robbie had been at the party, looking for her.
It just went on from there.
When Friday came, the evening ceremony prefiguring Saturday’s Commencement, Franny found she couldn’t face it—face the sudden actuality of loss, the heartbreak prettied up in music and in words, the headmaster’s groan-making platitudes and homilies, and having to pretend that nothing staggeringly dreadful was behind it all.
And so she lied, and let more people down—herself as much as anyone.
Before her parents had begun to change into their evening clothes, her father home early from court and out with the pigeons, she splashed her tear-wrenched face and wrapped herself in her comfy old robe, faded and threadbare as her long outgrown stuffed bear, and went to find her mother in her workroom downstairs off the kitchen.
“I’ve got some kind of flu,” she groaned with all her actor’s powers of suspending disbelief. She flushed accordingly, her stomach knotting too, at the thought of her cowardice. But she just couldn’t bear the thought of walking all alone up to the waiting piano with its stiff keys, feeling herself inconsequential and crushingly sad, a procession of one across the ambit of the church where Baccalaureate was being held, the lilacs crowding up insistent and oppressive at the open door and heightening the purple space, the bruised absence, where Rosa wouldn’t be.
Instead of that, Franny would hide in grief, sick to her stomach in truth now at the loss of her favorite, funny friend.
And so she didn’t go, didn’t play the little Fauré romance, the elegy that seemed to sum everything up. Instead she lay curled on her bed, on the powder-blue quilt her father’s mother had sewn lovingly by hand, nursing her made-up aches. Her window tightly closed against the spring, the world, the possibilities still within reach. She couldn’t stop imagining the onslaught of lilacs outside the house pressing and pressing at the glass, the walls themselves—urgent, reproachful, and remorseless—to get in, get at her, consume her absolutely.
She learned later that Rosa had been at the church that evening after all. She’d gone despite herself at the insistence of her aunts to hear the piano music, and mark the passing of a lot of things. She sat in the back row of pews, behind the line of late afternoon sunlight from the open door, waiting for the simple song Franny would play in her mother’s honor and memory.
Except that Franny hadn’t been there.
All that summer, until she left for Yale, from the morning she’d heard from her mother that Ana-Laura Sandoval had died (the night of the same day she’d seen Robbie Marion at the Opera, his arm around a laughing, buxom, auburn-headed girl, a perfect Queen Catherine, Octavia, Cleopatra), Franny had sat on the hard bench and played the Fauré over and over again, plaintive and sweet, always just a little too late.