Kara was taking a walk, because it was spring. Her mother had always made them take a walk on the first day of spring. She said the person who walked on the first day had a chance at catching the spring magic. They had always groaned and protested when it came time for a spring walk. It was chilly in the mornings and they wanted to play inside. It was spring break, too. Kylie, the toddler, was painting a watercolor picture, Logan and Ryley wanted to build their Legos, Emma wanted to call her friends. Tyler, the second-oldest, complained almost more than the little ones; he had video games to play.
Once, when she was a teenager, Kara had grumbled that her mother must have wanted them to catch the spring magic very badly if she was still trying to wrangle six children outside to go for a walk during spring break, when nobody thought it was fun, and they never caught any spring magic anyway. Her mother had gone very still in the middle of helping a toddler into his coat.
“No,” she said to Kara. “I just want us to have a chance to catch it. A chance is all you need.” Then Kara had shut her mouth and helped get hats for the little ones, remembering the soldier who had met a girl trying to escape North Korea, who had driven her out in his trunk and married her in a little Italian church on leave. Six children later he was gone. Mother never talked about him directly. She told the stories of how she got out, how she ran when she saw her chance. She described Italy in spring, and the dark wood of the old church, and the kindly, wrinkled face of the priest. “He looked like a walnut,” she always said, laughing.
But she never spoke of the soldier. He had left her like the snow melting in spring. The younger children didn’t understand, but Kara was old enough to have a foggy memory of a tall, laughing man, and the sadness and loneliness in her mother’s eyes. She hated him for being in her memories. She hated him for leaving them alone. So she closed her mouth and helped her mother take the children out for a spring walk, so that they would have a chance.
Now Italy was rent with death and disinfectant. When you looked up pictures to see the Italian spring, all you could see were pictures of empty streets and people in masks of sickening bright blue. The little ancient churches were closed, and the people were lightless as Kara took her spring walk. It was biting cold, and she was angry at herself for going outside, for trying to grasp some of the joy they had felt when they were little. She had so many things to do, she didn’t have time for something pointless. All she could see were the different shades of black and white in the road. There was no color this slushy spring. It was always different when they had gone with their mother.
Their neighborhood had been in the bad part of town, with cracked streets and old, dying trees that looked like the swaying telephone poles. But everything came alive when they went on their spring walk. People had stared the first year, at the single slight Asian mom with six children. She pushed the baby in a stroller, held the second youngest by the hand, and distributed the remainder to her teenagers to lead. She always took them around the neighborhood, smiling at everybody, pointing out that green patch of grass in the middle of the dead brown on Mr. DeVendra’s lawn, those little red flowers in pots on angry Mrs. Skorvewski’s cracked front porch. They went to the dilapidated brown house down the street and she made them see beauty there, how the smashed roof looked like chocolate frosting that had slid off the cake in a sheet because it was frosted too warm. One year when she was making them see the color on the poppies, stern Mrs. Skorvewski came out, slowly, and gave them a pot. She told mother that she had escaped from a gray Poland when she was a little girl, and come to a bright America, and married and had beautiful children, and then they had all died and gone away, and she always planted the red flowers because there was no more color where she lived now. And then she started to cry and said that the six children were always so bright when they walked past, and that they were the only ones who noticed the color of the flowers on this gray street. And after that Kara’s mother always took the children to see her until she died and the house was knocked down because it was falling apart anyway. But no one had noticed when there was someone inside it.
Kara’s mother had always brought light and color and brightness and life to spring through the spring walk. But without her it was pointless. The snowing was melting into slush, not green grass. Kara’s mother had always pointed out hidden pink cherry blossoms, and little gaps in the clouds to a soft blue sky. By the time the family came back from the spring walk, they had definitely caught something. Kara's mother would sometimes make a chocolate cake in honor of the brown house. The little kids were talking and laughing and showing sticks of interesting shapes that they had found, and everyone was tired and happy. Alone, Kara didn’t have a chance.
It was flat gray, no color anywhere, and the world was shut down. There was no spring coming this year. It was a world in which fathers left and people stopped talking to each other and people died of cancer and car crashes, and little old Polish ladies were left alone in their crumbling houses in the dark.
She saw something blue peeking out of a melting snowbank up ahead. Litterbugs! There was trash everywhere nowadays. Nobody cared about spring or spring magic anymore. How could there be so many ugly trash cans polluting the street, and yet so many dirty pieces of trash on the streets as well? She knelt down and pulled it out of the snow with two fingers, wincing at all the germs that were probably all over it.
It was a little plastic blue bottle that said “Skyy Vodka” on it. She sat down on the wet curb, staring at it.
She had met a man, a year ago, at college. Dominic had “homeschooler” stamped across his forehead. He wore collared shirts and opened doors for girls and called them “ladies” as a group and “miss” as individuals. He took her out to classy places for dates, never let her ride home alone, and always made sure she made it to the door of her dingy apartment safely before driving away. He taught her how to ballroom dance and introduced her to The Lord of the Rings. He was chivalrous and romantic in a way no other man had ever been. He never kissed her on the lips. He admitted he'd never kissed any girl on the lips, that he was saving it for the day he got married. He was saving it for her. “It’s meaningless if you do it all the time,” he had tried to explain. “There are so many wasted kisses out there. So I’m saving my first for you.”
It was weird, and she didn’t know what to say. Everybody kissed on the first date. It was romantic. She had given her first kiss to some boy in high school who she thought she loved, she didn’t even remember his name.
She felt like she had received some strange but precious gift from him.
He had proposed in a rose garden after an Italian dinner. She had known it was coming, but she had still cried. He was worried until she had thrown her arms around his neck and kept crying, but into his shoulder.
They had flown to Chicago, so she could meet his family. Her siblings had already met him, and her younger, taller brother Tyler had taken her aside and said he gave her his blessing, as the man of the family. She had looked up to him in a new way. Tyler had never tried to be the man of the family before.
On the plane Dominic had hung little streamers over their heads and spread bright, colorful blankets over their seats so that they would forget they were in coach. They put up the shade and stared at the puffy golden clouds. He had ordered a drink, and they poured the Skyy Vodka into little shot glasses he’d packed for the purpose, and tried to not spill when they encountered unexpected turbulence. They had toasted the pilot, whose name sounded like Morgan Freedman every time he said it, and each other and the whole beautiful world.
Then he died in a taxi in Chicago, and she survived, and her siblings were sorry and mourned with her and she met his family and cried with them. His mother told her to come and see her, but she never did again. She went back to her job and her dark neighborhood.
She smiled as she touched the Skyy Vodka bottle, and remembered him unscrewing it with a flourish, and insisting on carrying her bag for her, and saving his first kiss for their wedding day. She never had kissed him, but she felt as though she had gotten something much better.
It hurt to hold the vodka bottle, but it was also sweet. Like something frozen inside her was thawing into tears and pain and love again. Like snow melting into slush melting into spring.
She thought of her mother, alone with six children, forcing them to walk in the cold and see the red flowers, of Mrs. Skorvewski, trying to bring a little color into a gray world, like the pretty blue Skyy Vodka bottle, that deep blue with silver letters.
She thought of Dominic, the perfect man, and his family whom she had seen only for a moment. She thought of her father, a soldier goodness knows where, with a trunk that had saved a life that had brought color to a lonely old woman. She thought of the priest with a face like a walnut and his little dark church shut down, and of Tyler, taking charge of the family, giving her his blessing. She thought of the broken-down house that looked like chocolate cake someone had frosted too warm, and she decided to make a chocolate cake. She looked up at the gray clouds and noticed that one half was light gray, almost white, while on the further horizon it was dark, dark blue, almost black, and streaks ran through it. Rain miles and miles away, but it looked like a toddler’s watercolor paint from here. The contrast was striking. Beautiful, in its own way.
She threw the vodka bottle into one of the olive green trashcans and let it bang down behind her, echoing on the inside. She set out for home, pulling her jacket closer against the playful breeze, thinking of litterbugs and cherry blossoms and wasted kisses.