“The doctor will be in shortly, Ms. Jensen.”
Marie Jensen sat alone on a sticky examination bed. She watched the nurse exit with a mixture of disinterest and bald intent, if such a combination was possible. Once, the nurse’s faded pink hair might have made Marie scoff, but now she couldn’t bring herself to care one way or another. The only thing for which her thoughts and feelings had any regard at the moment was the sickening scent of disinfectant. Unfortunate.
She waited two, five, ten minutes before she remembered that when it came to doctors, the meaning of “shortly” was subjective. And despite her many years, Marie had never become accustomed to long waits. Normally, she remedied this problem by bringing a book everywhere she went, but the nature of that day’s appointment had made her forget. She supposed she would simply have to create her own entertainment. Unfortunately, she had little inspiration. Just cabinets, a faucet, a sterile white wall.
A wall. Marie thought she could work with that. So she began to dream.
She dreamed of the sterile white wall across from her because it wasn’t really a wall. It was, in fact, a canvas, blank and glowing and waiting to be brought to life. Marie was so full of life that she decided that she could afford to share a bit with the canvas. So she reached into the deepest recesses of her thoughts and reveries and drew out her paintbrush and palette. She hadn’t painted for a long time, not since the days in which her hair was thick and golden and her hands were pale and soft and free of liver spots and wrinkles. She had thought herself a great talent in those days, though she was not. She gave up the art in her adult years in exchange for work and love and a life of travel, and she did not regret that, but a part of her always missed the way the colors took her to faraway lands. It had been an escape of sorts, a backup plan for when life got too heavy.
In that room, waiting for bad news, Marie painted once more because life was far too heavy for her tastes and she wanted nothing more than to return to a different time.
So she picked up her brush and began. Stroke after stroke, she dreamed and believed and painted her heart. Much to her surprise, it turned out that her heart was a great, fiery phoenix. It was not perfect, this phoenix, the colors a bit too murky and the lines a little crooked, but it was a phoenix nonetheless, and a grand one without a doubt. The feathery beast stood nearly six feet tall and its wingspan must have doubled that. Marie was no expert on the proper dimensions of the mythical phoenix, but this one was her own and Marie was feeling larger than life that day. She reached out to stroke the phoenix’s ruffled feathers and the great bird cocked its head, a question in its onyx eyes.
Marie considered for a moment. Then she leaned in and whispered her dreams. The phoenix seemed to grin at her before it bowed low to the floor at Marie’s feet. She hesitated for the briefest of moments, but she had sat through her fair share of appointments and she knew how long it could take.
“I’d say I have just about enough time for a ride around this world and the next,” she said. “And everywhere in between, of course.”
Without further hesitation, she clutched her palette and her brush and climbed onto the great phoenix’s back.
And they were off.
Flying, soaring, spinning through all the colors of the rainbow and every shade imaginable. The woman took up her brush and painted the way forward, creating a landscape of her dreams and hopes and wishes. On and on they raced over mountains made of sapphires and forests full of pastel trees that reached the clouds; an ocean full of trilling sirens and silvery serpents just visible beneath the waves. Floating over that ocean, Marie thought she would indulge in another of her childhood fantasies. With a few brushstrokes and a little magic, a great ship appeared, sailing on the churning blue. And not just any ship, of course.
A pirate ship.
“Land there, please,” Marie told her feathered friend.
The phoenix circled a few times before coming to rest on the ship’s upper deck among a bustling crew. Roughly sixty feet in length, the ship carried massive black sails flying at full mast, complete with the skull and crossbones from the storybooks. It was a beauty and a terror to behold.
At the ship’s prow stood Marie’s father, ever the proud captain.
“Hello Papa,” Marie said in greeting. “How is the wind today?”
“Strong in the sails,” came the response, smooth yet weathered and brimming with quiet strength. “A perfect day for a visit from my beautiful daughter, though I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Oh, I just thought I’d drop in. Can’t let you have all the adventure without me.”
Her father’s eyes twinkled. “Well, now that you’re here, you should make yourself useful. Come to think of it, I’ve always wanted to meet a phoenix and I would love to study yours for a bit. Why don’t you take over steering duty for a while?”
“Papa, you know I don’t know how to-”
“Neither do I, but at some point you just have to get up and do it.”
“But I don’t know where to go!”
He shrugged. “You know it’s not about the destination, Marie.”
Her father had not changed one bit since he breathed his last. If there was one thing Marie had learned from him, it was that there was no sense in wasting time waiting for dreams to arrive, not when one could hunt them down herself.
Marie spent what felt like hours steering the ship with periodic interjections from her father and aside from the pirate ship, it was just like old times. Marie’s father was not perfect. He had struggled for many years to raise his young daughter without a mother, but he loved Marie fiercely and he was always a steadfast and supportive presence. As the sun began to set over the painted sea, Marie’s beloved father took his daughter’s hands and eased them from the wheel.
“It’s been lovely to see you, my dear,” he said then, “but I suspect you have other adventures to chase that do not involve me or this beauty of a ship.”
Marie grinned at him even as she felt tears welling up in her eyes. “I miss you, Papa.”
Well yes, I should hope so,” he said, looking mildly affronted. “Now, off with you! Go somewhere new, or somewhere old, just as long as it’s somewhere you’ve never been before.”
And so it was that Marie climbed back atop her phoenix and set out for the next adventure.
“The Eiffel Tower?” Lydia said, smirking. “That’s the best you could come up with?”
Marie had been worried the memories may have escaped her, but she found that pulling her Lydia onto the canvas came easily. Lydia was not a woman that one easily forgot.
Marie had begun with Lydia’s bright tawny skin and then moved on to her wild ebony curls, streaked with silver, but only a little. Lydia’s age had always seemed to catch up to her slower than that of those around her, to Marie’s eternal frustration. She painted Lydia in her favorite green dress with sparkling diamond earrings because she remembered how much Lydia loved to shine. Finally, she painted Lydia’s glimmering deep brown eyes, so dark they were nearly black. As she had suspected, she was entirely incapable of doing them anything close to justice, but Lydia was nonetheless her recognizable beautiful self when she moved to Marie’s side and took her hand.
“I thought I’d try my hand at the classic romance movie scenario.”
Lydia laughed, staring out over the dazzling lights of Paris. “It’s perfect.”
They fell into a comfortable silence for a while before Marie finally voiced what had been on her mind for a long time.
“I’m so sorry, Lydia. I should have been there.”
“Yes, you should have. But you could not have prevented it and you know that.”
“I do. And that’s not what I want you to remember when you think of us. We had our ups and downs like anyone else, but we were good. Better than good.”
“I may not remember any of it soon.”
Lydia squeezed Marie’s hand.
“No matter what happens, we happened first and we lived, Marie, really lived. Nothing can change that.”
Marie laid her head on Lydia’s shoulder and closed her eyes. “I want to stay here forever.”
“I wish you could,” said Lydia “but I think it’s almost time to go.”
“Just a few more minutes,” Marie pleaded, but Lydia took her by the shoulders and tilted her chin up.
“I’m not here anymore, but someone else is. It’s time to go.”
Marie squared her jaw and faced Lydia one last time. After a moment, she gave a nearly imperceptible nod and pressed her lips to the back of Lydia’s hand.
“Thank you,” she murmured softly. “You’ve always been the strong one.”
But Lydia shook her head. “This is all you, Marie.”
The phoenix landed lightly behind the two women bowed. Marie climbed atop the great beast once again and turned to give one last goodbye, only to see that Lydia was gone and the lights from the city far below were beginning to fade.
“Let’s go then, friend. I think we may still have a few minutes yet.”
They took off and spent many happy hours exploring the stars and mysterious planets out ins space, but Marie soon felt her trusty phoenix begin to tire, so she painted a tall, thick-trunked tree full of iridescent purple leaves on a planet that was not Earth and whispered to him to land. The phoenix did so with grace and promptly nestled into a juncture between two wide branches and fell fast asleep. Marie felt more awake than ever, so she climbed down the tree, pleased with her newfound painting world agility and set about finding her next adventure. She felt then that after all that time in the sky so close to the burning sun, a swim was in order. Blending vibrant blues and soft greens, she painted a small, deep pool, about six feet across and filled with metallic pink fish. Perching herself on a rocky ledge, just the perfect size, she lay back and let the cool, healing ripples carry her away for a while.
When she opened her eyes, she found her friend Sam lounging on a similar rocky seat across from her, deeply engrossed in a book.
Marie had met Sam at an AA meeting several years before. The period after losing Lydia had been a difficult time for her. She made many mistakes in those years, but introducing herself to Sam was not one of them.
Marie’s relationship with Sam was a quiet kind of friendship. They often endured long stretches of time without seeing one another, but when they did meet, there was a peace and comfort that Marie never felt with anyone else, not even Lydia. They never seemed to need words and things were much the same now. It was a long while before either of them spoke.
“I’m afraid, Sam,” Marie said at last.
“Good,” Sam replied promptly without looking up from his book.
“Good. No one was ever brave without first being afraid.”
“God, Sam, that’s so cliche.”
“Says the woman who chose Paris as the location of her romantic fantasy getaway.”
Marie winced. He was right.
“Cliche or not, it’s true,” Sam said, finally glancing up from his book.
Just then, an unfamiliar voice rang out high clear.
“It’s time to go,” said Sam.
Marie swallowed thickly. “Will you stay with me?”
“Of course,” said Sam, taking her hand.
Marie jumped as the phoenix went up in flames, singed feathers falling in every direction. Before her eyes, the sparkling violet tree began to dissipate, its spectacular colors fading from the tips of the branches to the base of the trunk. The shimmering pool drained until it was nothing more than a dry, dusty pit and then even that was gone. Before long, all the paint was gone and the canvas with it, and nothing was left but a sterile white wall.
“Ms. Jensen?” the doctor said again, louder this time.
Marie looked to her left to find Sam watching from a bench in the hall.
“You can do this,” he mouthed to her, and Marie wasn’t sure she believed him, but she would be brave.
So Marie Jenson held her head high and faced the doctor.