Clouds from Up and Down
Whenever my mood drops from blue to black, I close the bedroom door, slip out of my shoes, and plop into the downy arms of my king-sized comforter. Nestled in feathers, eyes closed, I’m not there for a nap. I’m hoping to trade my bad-weather day for one of the white cloud memories that have become my Valium, my gilt-edged haven.
After clearing out the to-dos and don’ts that plague my waking hours, I begin wandering through the ridges of my mind. If I avoid the canyon shadows and don’t fall asleep, I find what I’m looking for in the summer of 1955. I’m lying on a quilt my mother pieced together out of old flannel sheets. Buoyed by a mattress of grass, the quilt is almost as soft as my king-sized comforter. I’m on my back, watching an array of clouds drift across a periwinkle sky. Next to me is my best friend Billy—the twelve-year-old boy who lives down the road. A picnic basket sits just beyond our suntanned toes, but I don’t remember what’s in it. Probably sandwiches on white bread and sugar cookies.
It’s the middle of summer vacation, and Billy and I have spread our magic carpet in a field of clover next to my house. We’re wearing shorts and t-shirts. The sun-warmed flannel hugs the heels of our bare feet while clouds float overhead. Occasionally, a cloud’s unusual shape tickles our imaginations.
“Do you see it?” I ask, pointing skyward. “Off to the right. See the rabbit?”
“Sort of…what kind of rabbit?”
“Looks like the Easter bunny to me. That little puffy cloud at the bottom is its tail.”
“It has awfully long ears.”
“Maybe it’s a jack rabbit.”
“Jack rabbits are brown and skinny.”
“I don’t care.” I cross my arms over my chest. “A cloud rabbit can be anything I want it to be.”
The rabbit floats away, its ears trailing behind, and for the next few minutes sunshine warms my bare arms and legs. Lulled by the clover’s vanilla hay fragrance, I sink into the softness of the quilt—first my spine goes limp, then my arms and legs.
“Why are your eyes closed?” Billy asks.
I raise my head and use the blade of my hand to shade my eyes while I watch two clouds merge into a fleecy critter twice the size of the rabbit. The critter grows until it hides the sun, its hazy shadow covering us like a cool cotton sheet.
I lay my head down again, listening to the hum of honey bees gathering nectar from the sweet-smelling clover. Soon the large cloud formation breaks up and we’re bathed in sunshine again. Billy reaches across the flannel gap between us and places his hand close enough to mine that our pinky fingers touch. I smile inside as a tingling sensation runs up my arm. I dare not budge lest he think I’m rejecting him. He doesn’t move, either. We lay still for some time, keeping our cloud impressions and other thoughts to ourselves. I don’t know what Billy’s clouds are like, but I see hearts and mermaids and cotton candy faces, clouds so delicate they look as if they’re going to dissolve. Instead they linger; separate into misty wisps that ebb and flow, roll and recede.
Billy ventures one of his fingers between two of mine, and my heart bubbles with joy and suppressed giggles. When I don’t pull my hand away, he follows with three more fingers and a thumb, lacing our ten small digits together. It’s the first time we have held hands, and I love how grown up it makes me feel—shy, yet a bit bold and definitely adored.
Rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere. I’ve looked at clouds that way.
Ten years after that white cloud summer day, Will and I were married in a church a mile and a half from the patch of clover where we first held hands. We had graduated from college that spring, I as a sociology major, he with a degree in business. Our romance had been on-again off-again during high school and college, so those who knew us weren’t surprised when storm clouds hovered over our wedding. Rain pelted the chapel’s leaded glass windows as Will and I stood, hand in hand, in front of the congregation. We’d written our own vows, not an easy task for either of us, and then had to shout the carefully crafted words in order to hear them over the thunder.
Two minutes before the ceremony ended the lights went out, and our first kiss as husband and wife was in candlelight. We each removed a lighted candle from the stand next to the piano and walked down the aisle with them. Candle in one hand, bouquet in the other, I managed a smile for friends and family sitting in the pews. My cloud of disappointment grew even darker when we reached the vestibule and opened the double doors where we stood in the opening for several minutes, staring through sheets of rain at the flooded street in front of the church.
Someone retrieved our car, and two guests loaned us umbrellas. “We can’t stand here forever,” Will said, so I grabbed one of the umbrellas and took the plunge. We waded to our car, fighting to keep the wind from taking off with our umbrellas. We threw the soggy umbrellas in the back seat, and on the way to a reception that many people would skip because of the weather, I sobbed over my rain-soaked satin pumps and ruined gown.
But now it’s just another show, you leave ‘em laughing when you go.
And if you care, don’t let them know. Don’t give yourself away.
How did I dredge up those stormy memories? I didn’t close the bedroom door and lie on my comforter to wallow in rain and mud again. I turn over, punch my king-sized pillow, and bury my face in it. I’m on the hunt for another mid-afternoon escape when a thunder clap shakes the house. I hope the kaboom I heard was real and not another holdover from my wedding day.
I roll out of bed and walk to the bank of windows overlooking the patio. I open the blinds and watch the trees and bushes in our back yard whip back and forth as if they might topple. Brown leaves swirl through the air, pummeling the lawn furniture and frost-bitten flowers. High above the trees, gray clouds bump and muscle for position in a sky growing darker by the minute.
I’m about to return to my bed when I hear the bedroom door open. I wait, staring at the clouds, until I feel Will’s hands on my shoulders. I shrug them off and move a few feet away from him.
“Isn’t it about time you got dressed?” he says.
I’m wearing my pill-balled flannel robe. With no buttons, no crotch, it’s the most comfortable thing I own. I stare at the mosaic of stains on the robe’s bodice. The brown ones are probably coffee. The red ones, wine or spaghetti sauce. I’ve ignored the stains for weeks. Will’s comments about them, too.
My eyes remain fixed on the clouds boiling across the sky. “What time is it?” I ask.
“It’s three o’clock, for Christ sake. The sink is still full of dishes and it’s almost time for dinner.”
My fingernails dig into the palms of my hands. How I wish I’d done something with my education. Yes, I was busy being a wife and mother, but so were some of my friends who had careers. Even a part-time job would have rescued me from this house once in a while.
I glance in Will’s direction. The storm clouds have darkened our bedroom, but not enough to hide the scowl on his wrinkled face. As usual, he’s wearing his accounting uniform—khaki pants, black belt, starched dress shirt. The man has been retired for fifteen years, yet he dresses every day as if he’s going to work. He even keeps a ballpoint pen in his left breast pocket.
A flash of lightning pierces the gloom, and for an instant Will looks like one of those jowly Nixon masks people wear on Halloween. He grips my arm, and with thunder rumbling overhead, marches me to our walk-in closet.
He flips on the light. “Get dressed,” he says, leading me to the rod that holds my shirts and blouses. They hang on my side of a closet arranged by color—his idea, not mine. Years ago he organized his own clothes that way and decided I should do the same. He pouts if I don’t keep my clothes in the right color group. Sometimes he even yells.
I don’t love Will when he’s angry, but I like him when he’s annoyed. He gets cranky when everything in his world isn’t perfectly organized, so I used to rile him by shuffling the books on his bookshelf or putting his underwear away without folding it. He would stomp and carry on like a boy denied something he wanted. I’d just smile and call him a fussbudget. When our two boys grew old enough to understand what I was doing, they teased him, too. Sometimes we worked as a team. The boys are raising families of their own now, and without them here, mischief isn’t fun anymore.
I’ve looked at love from both sides now, from give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know love at all.
Will leaves, and I’m alone in a closet the size of our boys’ first bedroom. In a daze I pick through my color-coordinated wardrobe, finding something wrong with every item I touch—too bright, not warm enough, needs to be ironed. I finally settle on a pair of ill-fitting jeans and a sloppy sweatshirt that hides my bony frame.
On my way to the kitchen I pause, as I often do, under the long rectangular skylight in the hallway. Glancing upwards, I see nothing but gray beyond the glass, not even the wisp of a different color. I feel boxed in, with a gray glass skylight providing the lid.
Vaguely aware of slippers slapping against porcelain tile, I walk to my stainless steel dungeon. My chest tightens at the thought of cooking dinner. Except for occasional business outings, Will came home for lunch every day. I made sack lunches for our boys while they were in grade school. There were holiday meals with family and relatives gathered around tables piled high with calories, compliments and requests for second helpings, spurts of encouragement that kept me motivated during the early years. I was young then, living with the sometimes fearful, sometimes hopeful cloudiness of the future.
The other day I decided to add up how much cooking I’ve done over the thirty years Will and I have been married, and it came to 34,970 meals. Cooking until I’m sick of it…arranging clothes by color…teaching my boys to be bullies.
So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way.
Ginger Dehlinger writes in multiple genres. Most of her work is set in the American West. She self-published her first novel, Brute Heart. Her second novel, Never Done, was published by The Wild Rose Press. Her poetry, essays, and short stories appear in several anthologies, including Gold Man Review, Shout Out, and five of the 2012-2017 Central Oregon Writing Guild’s Harvest Collections.
Italicized lyrics from “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell in this essay are ©1967 Gandalf Publishing Co.