Work Header

The Hills of Iowa

Work Text:

Ivy's family moved to town when I was in the first year of high school. She ended up in three of my classes, and it was love at first sight.

Well, for me it was. It was the sort of desperate teenage love that takes over your whole life, until you can't understand why anybody would ever care about the next math test or football game.

Ivy had long curly red hair, and she sometimes sucked on the ends of it when she was concentrating. She was short and curvy, with pale freckled skin. In history, she sat at the desk in front of me and to the left, and I spent a lot of time watching her, trying very hard to make it appear like I wasn't. I didn't actually know her, of course--the few times we talked, I went home and wrote long agonized entries in my diary about what I should've said and what would've happened then, and...well, I still have those diaries somewhere. I don't know if I'd want to reread them, though--teenage diaries are embarrassing. Or at least mine are.

Anyway, I didn't tell anyone about this, not even my best friend Katie. Falling in love with another girl wasn't the sort of thing that girls did in the small town where I lived. Or if it happened to other girls, they sure didn't talk about it. Instead, I told Katie that I had a crush on Will Turner. He was a quarterback on the football team and half the girls in the school had a crush on him. And it's not like he'd ever notice me anyway, so he was a safe choice.

I'd sit in class and cast pining glances at Ivy when I thought nobody was looking, and then Katie and I would walk home together and part ways at the video rental store. I'd turn left, walk past the corner convenience store and come home, and after dinner I'd go up to my room and write poetry about Ivy that I'd never show anyone. I hid it, along with my diary, under a stack of old magazines in a closet where I was pretty sure no one would ever look.

I found that poetry again when I was cleaning out the house, when Mom was moving to the retirement home. But I'm getting ahead of the story.

Anyway, I never did get together with Ivy. I don't think I ever expected to--it isn't the sort of thing that actually happens, you know?

Instead, I got married two years after high school, to a guy named Rob. Katie used to drag me and a couple of other friends to a place in Fayette where they had swing dancing. There were mostly college kids at these dances, and I felt a bit out of place. But that's where I met Rob. It turned out that I was pretty good at dancing--we were good at it together.

Thinking about it now, I don't know if I was ever in love with him. I liked him, and I liked dancing with him, and he was a nice guy. My parents liked him. But love? Sure, there were some butterflies in my stomach when he proposed, but it wasn't that feeling like you're a river overflowing its banks and you can't hold it in. Not like I'd felt about Ivy. But I guess I figured that was teenage love, and this was real life.

We moved to Cedar Rapids when he was offered a promotion. At that point, I only had a part-time job waitressing at a diner, plus I was pregnant with our first, and there just wasn't much to hold me in town. Well, my family, of course, but my parents said they didn't mind. It was just an hour and a half to drive; it's not like we couldn't visit. Katie, too, had already moved away, and we'd drifted apart.

It's funny, because Ivy was actually living in town that whole time, but it's like she was in a different reality from me. I didn't think of her as an actual human being, I suppose. In my head, she was like some angel floating high above it all, and when I married Rob, I'd turned onto another path entirely.

I guess I can't complain about the life I had with Rob. We had two lovely kids, a boy and a girl, and I don't regret that at all. He worked a lot--by the time things fell apart, he was a middle-level boss, which seemed to mean that both those working under him and those above dumped shit on him. So maybe it wasn't his fault that he never seemed to have much energy left for me and the kids. I worked, too, once the kids were old enough--I got a job in administration at their elementary school, which was nice, because it got me out of the house and I made some new friends there.

But whatever the reason, everything between us was just about the day-to-day stuff: who would cook dinner (usually me), who'd pick Mike up after soccer practice, whose fault it was that the insurance bill hadn't been paid on time. And I know that's part of a life together, but it can't be all there is, you know? There just wasn't any spark between us.

We never went out dancing any more.

The year after Mike, our oldest, moved out was a bad one. Megan was in the middle of her worst teenage rebellion, and Ann, a good friend I'd made in the city, separated from her husband and was in an awful, drawn-out custody battle. And then my dad died of a heart attack.

I needed someone to lean on, or at least someone to hold my hand and tell me it was going to be all right, and Rob just wasn't there.

I coped, I guess, like you do if you have to.

After Megan moved out, too, the house was so empty. She'd been annoying as all get-out in her teenage years, yes, but I loved her, and it felt like she took all the life of the family with her when she left.

I took to driving out to visit Mom a lot on the weekends. She was alone after Dad died, and I could tell she really appreciated it when I came to visit, even if she never said so outright, being Mom. And I felt some nostalgia coming back to my hometown, I guess.

I didn't really describe it earlier, but the town is right up in the hills, in northeastern Iowa, and I'd used to play in those hills when I was a kid. That part of the state has always been more wild and undeveloped since it's too rocky to farm. I remember learning in school that there had never been any ice covering it in the Ice Age; it hadn't been scraped down and flattened out like the land around it. I used to take walks in the hills after visiting with Mom, and then I'd drive back to the city and to Rob.

I didn't notice the first signs, though they're pretty obvious in hindsight. Mom had made me cinnamon toast, which I'd used to love as a kid. But at the first bite, I screwed up my face in surprise: she'd put salt on it instead of sugar. She was surprised, too--said she didn't know what she'd been thinking.

The day I finally realized something was going on--or suspected it, anyway--was the day I came into the kitchen and found her stirring the soup with a bread knife.

I got her to go to the doctor and take some tests, which wasn't easy, believe me. She didn't want to think anything was wrong, and I don't blame her.

But the doctor's diagnosis came, inevitably: she had Alzheimer's.

It took a while before I could deal with this. She was my mom, you know? And now I'd have to take care of her, not the other way around. It didn't feel natural--except of course it was, it was what happened to everyone's parents eventually. They got old. But that didn't make it easy.

She lived alone for a while more, but the day I came in and saw that the stove was on, with no pot on it or anything, a cold chill went through me. I shut it off--it was almost red-hot--and asked her how long it'd been on. She got defensive, I was scared and didn't express it well. It ended in a shouting match.

Anyway. I found her a place in a retirement home. We'd have to sell her house, and I didn't look forward to the process of selling it and going through all the stuff. Not to mention it was my childhood home, but there was no way I could keep it. I lived in the city now, and besides, we couldn't afford it.

The day I took her to the retirement home, I was a bit harried. There was a lot of practical stuff to be done, like figure out what clothes and other stuff she'd need, but most of all, it was hard to get her to understand why she'd have to move. She thought she was doing fine, when she really wasn't.

So when I walked in the door to the place, I just about stopped in my tracks and gaped.

Standing there in front of us was Ivy.

Sure, she looked different. Of course she did: I'd last seen her as a teenager, and now she was middle-aged. She'd filled out, and was plump where she'd been curvy before. There was a little gray in her red hair, and her face wasn't smooth and young any more. But it was her. I suppose I was astonished that she even still existed--in my head she was still a teenage dream.

"Karen?" she was saying, frowning a little. "Weren't you in my class in high school?"

At the sound of my name, I swallowed and managed to say something. "Yeah."

She was in nurse's scrubs, I saw now. She worked there.

"Mrs. Palmer?" Ivy was saying, turning to Mom and welcoming her to the home. I just stood there, until Ivy asked me about Mom's things, and I went to carry her bags in.

It all felt almost surreal, and I thought I must've made a strange impression on Ivy, though she said afterward that she hadn't thought so. Maybe it was all in my head.

I visited Mom every weekend after that, and sometimes on weekdays, too, since I was only working part-time. I found myself looking forward to seeing Ivy, and on the days she wasn't working, I was always disappointed, although I told myself that I was only there for Mom.

Ivy's smile wasn't one bit less riveting, though it was different.

"Karen? Do you want some coffee?" she said one day. It was raining, and I'd been considering whether to start my drive back yet. I wasn't looking forward to it. I agreed to the coffee, expecting to follow her to the cafeteria, but instead she led me to a small, staff-only break room. I was feeling awkward and didn't know what to say at first, but then we started talking about high school.

"I thought you were kind of...aloof?" Ivy said. "But maybe it was just me. I mean, I was new in town, and I didn't have a lot of friends. I remember thinking you were nice, that I'd like to get to know you."

I tried not to blush, and failed. I had a huge crush on you, I imagined saying, and didn't. "I didn't mean to--I mean, I didn't think of myself that way. I think I was just shy."

"Weren't we all." She offered me some cookies from a box, and I took one. "High school. That's one period of my life I don't want to go back to."

"Me neither." I wanted to ask her if she was married, if she had kids--everything about her life. But I couldn't bring myself to do it.

I found out more about her eventually, bits and pieces that I put together from things she said and things her colleagues said. She was living on her own in a house on the outskirts of town--no kids, and no husband either. She liked gardening, and had a big plot where she grew vegetables. She mostly liked her work, except when she got bogged down with paperwork and there wasn't time enough for the patients. She had a wonderful laugh--no, I knew that from the start. Deep and low, making dimples appear in her cheeks.

I suppose it's obvious by now that I was falling in love with her for the second time in my life.

Meanwhile, my mom was getting worse, slowly but steadily. The first time she didn't recognize me I didn't know what to say. She was talking about her own mother as if she was still alive, and asking if I'd seen her recently. I opened my mouth, not sure whether to tell her that her mother was dead and she was old herself and just didn't remember, or to play along. Either one made me sick to my stomach. Finally I changed the subject, talking about the weather of all things, like she was a stranger to me. Which is, I suppose, what she was becoming.

I was shaky when I left Mom in the common room, watching TV. Ivy was filling in some sort of form at the front desk, but she took one look at me and made a movement as if to come closer. Then she hesitated. "Karen?"

"I--" I swallowed, trying to say something, but my throat was closing up. "She doesn't--"

"Oh, honey," she said. She did come closer then, and tentatively put her arms around me. I put my face into her shoulder and cried.

"She--she didn't know me," I finally managed to say, feeling that I had to explain myself.

"I'm so sorry." Ivy stroked my back. I felt miserable, but at the same time I couldn't help reacting to her closeness. Her hair was soft against my face, and sticking to my cheek a little from the tears. And her whole warm, soft, living body against mine made my heart beat faster and my cheeks flush with guilt and confusion that I could--Mom, and my grief, and Ivy, and--

I let go, needing a little distance. Ivy let me, squeezing my shoulder a little. "Do you need anything? Can I get you some coffee or something?"

"No, I just--I need to be alone for a while. I'll go out for a walk." But I hesitated before I went, perversely wanting the contact back now that I'd let it go. "Uh, thanks."

"It's not easy. I know it's not," Ivy said. "But it comes and goes--she'll recognize you again, on her good days. It might not be much of a comfort, but..."

"Thanks," I said, meaning it.

I drove up to a certain dead end road that I knew and went for a long walk up in the hills. Summer was just ending, and the hilltops were touched with red and gold. I sat down on an outcrop and drew my knees up to my chest, taking long breaths of the cool clean air. Mom was fading away. I'd known that, but it felt like I'd just been slapped in the face with it.

Maybe you're wondering where Rob was in all this. He'd come with me to visit Mom once, but he'd obviously felt uncomfortable and like he just didn't want to be bothered with it. I guess he was busy with work, like always, and I let it go. I'd almost stopped counting on him altogether.

I shivered a little as the sun sank lower in the sky, and stuffed my hands into the pockets of my jacket. Then I frowned, taking out a chocolate bar. I hadn't--Ivy? I remembered her eating one of these. I smiled. It was a small thing, but I suddenly felt like I wasn't quite so alone.

Munching on the chocolate, I hiked down to the car and drove home.

Ivy was right--Mom did have good days after that, when she still recognized me. They came more and more seldom, though, and it was like she sank further and further into herself, her gaze distant and unmoved by anything. Only when I sang to her did she react. She'd been in the church choir, and loved music. I didn't have much of a singing voice myself, but I sang some of the songs she'd used to sing to me when I was a kid, and she'd rock a little in time to the music, a smile on her face.

But I'm getting ahead of myself again. A couple of weeks after that first time when Mom didn't recognize me, Ivy invited me home, if you can believe it. It was afternoon; I'd just said goodbye to Mom and was preparing to go home, when Ivy came up to me.

"Karen? I'm just getting off my shift. Do you want to come by my place? I'll give you some of that squash I told you about--I have so much I don't know what to do with it."

I gaped, but recovered quickly. "Sure. Of course."

I was intensely curious about Ivy's place. It turned out to be a small house nestled up against a slope, almost overgrown with--you guessed it--ivy.

"Yeah, go ahead and laugh," Ivy said. "A friend of mine planted it as a joke, when I first moved in here, but it really took."

I did laugh. "It's beautiful."

She showed me her vegetable garden. It was obviously lovingly cared for: rows of carrots and beets, peas and beans clambering on poles, kale and potatoes and broccoli.

"I'm lucky this hill faces south, or I wouldn't be able to grow this much," Ivy said, leading me between the rows. "And here are the squashes. They really need to be eaten now, before they get monster-sized--that makes them less tender. I really can't eat them all."

"I'd love to have some."

Ivy bent down and cut off squashes with a pair of shears. For that moment, I could watch her without having to pretend I wasn't. I traced the line of her neck in my mind, the curly tendrils of red hair that had escaped her ponytail, and felt a sort of hopeless tenderness.

It wasn't the sort of thing that happened, I reminded myself.

Ivy stood up, handing me an armful of squash. "Here you go."

I took them awkwardly, making a basket of my shirt to hold them. "Thanks."

"Do you want a cup of tea?" Ivy said, gesturing towards the house.

Because I wanted so much to say yes, somehow I said no instead. "I'm sorry. It's getting late, and I've got to get home."

"Oh. Well, maybe another time, then." She drew back a little, and I realized how close we'd been standing.

That closeness followed me somehow through the drive home, as if I could still feel Ivy's skin brushing against mine, warm like a patch of sunshine through a window. But when I came home, with the sound of the car as I pulled up, the snick of the door closing behind me, I slotted right back into my ordinary life.

And then the squash I'd brought with me--rounded and smooth and yellow in my hands, a little piece of that other world again. It's like I was swinging back and forth, back and forth, between ordinary life and the impossible dream that was Ivy. It wasn't like me--I usually have an even keel.

I made dinner and sat down to eat with Rob--it was one of the days when we were actually eating dinner together. I looked at his familiar face, out of the corner of my eye so he wouldn't wonder why I was looking at him like that. I'd been in love with him once, I suppose. I was, in fact, married to him. I was married and I was spending my time daydreaming about someone else.

I guess that's what made me ask out of the blue if he wanted to go out dancing this weekend. I bit my lip right after, wondering what on earth had got into me.

"Dancing?" He couldn't have looked more surprised if I'd asked if he wanted to strip nude and cartwheel down the middle of the street.

"You know. Like we used to." Had we ever done that? It almost felt unreal now.

He shrugged a little and shook his head. "I probably don't remember how any more. Besides, I've got to work overtime on Friday, you know that."

I hadn't known that, but it didn't matter. He clearly wasn't interested in going out dancing, anyway. And I did know why I'd asked, now. It's like I'd given Rob one last chance, to see if there was anything left. And there wasn't.

I wondered if Ivy liked dancing, then tried to repress the thought. But no. If my husband didn't care about me anymore, I wasn't going to feel ashamed of thinking about someone else.

Deliberately, I thought about Ivy. I wondered what it would be like to kiss her. Her lips would be soft and gentle, at first. Her tongue...I flushed, and got up from the table to go clear up in the kitchen. I did it efficiently, almost on autopilot. Rob had gone upstairs.

Without thinking it through too much, I scribbled down a note for him, saying that I had to go back to Mom tonight, and that I might stay there overnight, and he shouldn't worry. I felt a twinge of remorse at the lie, but I slipped into my jacket and shoes and was out the door before I could change my mind.

The air was cool outside, but my face felt flushed. My heart pounded. He'd hear the car pulling away, but by then I'd be gone.

There wasn't much traffic on the roads this late, and I might've driven a few miles above the limit. I don't know. It felt good to just floor the gas pedal and feel like I was getting somewhere, despite the confusion in my mind.

About fifteen minutes out, I realized that I didn't have my seatbelt fastened. I put it on with a shaky laugh. What was I doing? Me, a middle-aged married woman, driving off to declare my love to--to a woman who'd been my crush in high school, and who was just an acquaintance now.

But. She'd given me squashes. She'd hugged me when I was down. She'd smiled at me and I'd felt warm down to my toes.

I'd been conventional all my life, and I felt like I just had to do this one thing or I'd burst. I had to try.

I was off the main highway now and the road was winding among the hills. I slowed down. It was dark, and I didn't want to have an accident. My hands were growing sweaty on the steering wheel. I gripped it tightly and thought about what on earth I was going to say.

I turned into Ivy's driveway with a crunch of gravel. There was a warm yellow light in the kitchen window. In the dark, the house looked like an animal nestled in against the hillside, the ivy softening its walls and blending into the night. The air smelled of earth and of wet leaves.

I walked towards that light like one of the moths that circle around streetlights. I counted to three, then knocked at the door. Footsteps, then I blinked at the sudden light as she opened the door.


My tongue felt stuck in my mouth.

"Is anything wrong?"

I shook my head, and wondered if she could hear my pounding heart.

"Come on in." Ivy held the door open, and I stepped over the threshold. Her face was half in shadow in the light from the kitchen, her hair pulled back carelessly. She looked like everything I ever wanted.

Ivy took my hand and squeezed it, and it gave me courage. I took a deep breath and spoke.


I should finish the story, I guess, although this isn't really the end of it, only the beginning, or maybe the middle (I'm middle-aged, after all).

A year after that wild night-time drive to Ivy, I'd divorced Rob and moved in with Ivy. I say that like it was a simple thing to do, but of course it wasn't. But no matter the difficulties, I'd rather think about what I've got now: Ivy's soft sleep-warm body curled up around me in the morning, working in the garden together, and the smell of the hills after rain. Being close enough to Mom to walk down to visit her.

No dancing, though, because Ivy turned out to have two left feet. But I didn't care. And I guess teenage me was wrong--this is the sort of thing that can happen, after all.