“You know that feeling when you meet someone and they just crawl up under your skin and move into your head? They become an itch you can’t scratch, a ghost you can’t evict, and every moment, from that moment on, is just a little bit different? Such has been my beautiful burden since the night I met Poppy.”
Eli clears her throat and stubs out the joint we’ve been sharing. We’re in her apartment and it’s everything you want to believe an ageing hippie’s home would be: the ceiling is a forty year old jungle of plants, souvenirs of life and love clutter shelves and windowsills. There’s a potter’s wheel in the corner and no fewer than three cats doze in a knot on a worn velvet sofa, emerald green and threadbare. It’s sunny and peaceful high above the busy street and my hair and clothes will inevitably smell like incense when I leave. I rest my hands in my lap, I have been taking notes as we’ve talked and smoked; we are already on our second pot of tea, and I want her to go on. Poppy is the story I’m here for.
“When she’s near me, still, I’m a bundle of nerves, raw and open. You know? She likes it, she relishes the way I freeze up and blush, imagine me, blushing! She’s a vixen, you know the type. Always quick to ruffle my hair and kiss me just to make it worse.”
Eli opens the wooden box on the table between us and begins to roll a second joint.
“She was impossibly cool. I always thought she resembled her name, a breezy, tangled vine of a girl. We were so young back then. Before you were born, I’d bet.”
She pauses to run her tongue along the strip of glue on the rolling paper, twisting the ends in a motion so smooth it reveals decades of muscle memory. She hands it to me and flicks the box of matches towards me.
“I need fruit before I go on.”
She’s up and out of her chair with a speed and flexibility that belies her seventy something years, a jangle of bracelets and a small crash come from the kitchen and she returns with a paper bag. I’m both fascinated and afraid of what treasures it might hold.
“I hope you like plums,” she cackles, as she tumbles the fruit into a heavy handmade bowl.
She takes the unlit joint back from me, and smiles, gesturing towards the plums and disappearing in a plume of blue smoke. She passes it back and deftly splits a plum along the seam of it’s flesh with her thumbnail.
“You were telling me about the night you and Poppy met …”
I trail off hoping she will pick up the story, and she does. I take a plum from the bowl and eat it. It’s warm, as if the bag had been sitting in the sun. It is delicious. Eli chews thoughtfully and swallows.
“There was something wild and windblown in her, something that put a lightness in her smile, something so free. I was this butch baby-dyke with her first flat top, fresh from Seattle, tripping my way south trying to get away from myself. But Poppy, she felt as warm as the reds and oranges of the flowers she’s named for, you know how I mean? She knew who she was, and it was stunning. She was as bold and unapologetic as the California sunset that spread above us that night fell in love with her.”
Eli points at my laptop and gestures that I should be writing this down, and she’s right. My hands are slow but I diligently take note of her poetic account of falling in love in the Summer of Love.
“I didn’t mean to meet her that night, I wasn’t ready, not in my heart, nor my head, but that’s just how it is sometimes. You can’t pick and choose who love brings you or how love hits you. I would have rather watched her from afar just a little longer, or fumbled to get her number at the end of the night and made a fool of my self by telephone instead. I was unprepared, sometimes I still am, for just how much she can make me feel and see. That night feels like a lifetime ago and I’m still spellbound! I could never have been prepared for all that beauty.”
Eli pauses to take a long draw on the joint and seems momentarily lost in the smoke as if it is the memory itself. I wait, cursor blinking. As a ghost writer one doesn’t often feel like an actual ghost, but the intimacy in Eli’s eyes as she casts her memory back to that California beach in ’69, is so profound that I have to look away.
“She just appeared in amongst the party. People were milling about on the beach, swimming, necking, drinking. The sun had just set and everything was that hazy purple of dusk but the sky was orange. A sherbet sky. And then there she was: a shifting shape across the bonfire from me. It was her laugh that first turned my head. Love at first sound! When I say I fell for her at first sight, I mean that my heart was yanked to the end of its chain. You know how dogs do that? Old junkyard dogs? They don’t even have junkyards anymore, but you get my meaning. I was flayed, split open in that moment.”
Eli pauses to extract a plum pit from between her lips and smiles, nudging the bowl nearer to me. I oblige and eat another.
“And there she was,” she says again. “Beyond the rising sparks, that red hair like fire licking at her bare shoulders, she just turned and looked at me – into me – and before I could look away, the dye was cast. I was done for. I looked away, because she caught me looking, and when I looked back she was still watching me. Looking right into me. In a few slow strides, she had this walk like you wouldn’t believe, she was beside me, and then in my lap, grinning like that cat from Alice in Wonderland.”
“The Cheshire Cat,” I add.
“The Cheshire Cat, from Alice in — “
“Whatever it’s called: like that. Then she says, casual as you like, ‘I’m Poppy’ still smiling while I wait for my brain to reconnect with my mouth. I was struck dumb that this woman had climbed into my lap but I’m trying to be cool, so I tell her I’m Eli, or Elizabeth. It wasn’t like it is now, you couldn’t just be a girl named Elizabeth who went by Eli. Maybe if my hair had been longer,” she cackles again and goes on.
” ‘Eli with the green eyes’ she called me, and she ran her hand through my hair. I remember thinking that I should be flinching, recoiling, I should be uncomfortable with this strange and beautiful creature, but instead I sat stone-still in hopes she wouldn’t stop.”
The buzzer from the lobby sounds and Eli spits out the plum pit she’s had in her mouth and waggles her eyebrows at me.
“That’s my accountant, we’re going to have to continue this another day — do you have enough to start working on that chapter?”
She buzzes up the accountant as I pack up my laptop.
“Does next Wednesday still work?”
“It does. I’ll see you then.”