An Ace Up My Sleeve
I was there when my parents prepared to kill my first lover. They stood in the yard next to the house, contemplating the best way to do it.
“I think we should do it from this side,” my father said, turning his head toward my mother, but keeping his eyes on my lover.
“I’d really like this to go down as far away from the house as possible.” My mother tapped her fingers on her chin.
My first lover was a sycamore tree planted years before my birth, five feet from the brick wall of our house. Great planning. She grew higher, thicker, green and leafy over the years. She was the shade of my childhood.
By the time I was seven, I could climb her myself, much to my mother’s dismay. My soon-to-be-lover was over seventy-five feet tall even then, and my mother was worried sick that I would fall from her branches and splatter brains all over the yard. The rule was simple: no climbing the tree. So I did it whenever no one could see me.
I loved the view from high above. I loved the breeze, the defiance. I felt a slight hint of power. I felt invisible to the passersby, if I remained still and quiet within her leaves. At eight-years-old, I loved her for a new reason. I discovered the wonderful thing that girls discover all over the world, some early on, some later, a few never, some in a positive way, and those poor Baptist and Methodist women, in sheer horror. I discovered the secret that, at the time, as far as I was concerned, only I knew.
When I reached a certain level in the tree, just above the roof of the house, there were opposite branches above me and no other way to pull myself upward but to grab those two branches, wrap my legs around her trunk, and pull myself higher, in hopes of letting go with one hand and reaching for the branch above. I failed and slid back down several inches, only to try and pull up again, quickly, before my strength gave out. And again.
After repeating this action several times, I became aware of something bizarre, a feeling that was strange and wonderful, and somehow related to the sensation that I had when I watched the uniformed park ranger at a nearby lake that we visited. I looked around, thinking perhaps I should ask someone about what was taking place. I did it again.
The sycamore and I had a standing date for years. At first, I was sure it was a secret power that only I could conjure. I thought about telling a friend of mine at school, but reconsidered, in case telling someone lessened the effect. By the time I was twelve, I had heard things, seen things, and had discovered that I was not the only one with this ability. In fact, probably everyone could do it. It was more a question of whether or not they chose to practice their power.
By the time I was twenty, and living elsewhere, the sycamore’s roots had pushed up through the carport, creating beautiful cracks in the cement. Whenever I visited, I watched the ants crawl frantically along those cracks, as if these were highways to somewhere exciting.
When I drove up one day and found my mother tapping on her chin and my father trying to do geometry and determine where she would fall, I was devastated at first. But then I looked upward to the place of that sycamore’s fond embrace, thirty feet above my head, where two branches – the perfect size for my eight-year-old hands – stuck out on opposite sides of the trunk.
Well, they could cut my tree down. She had already taught me what I needed to know, something I’d never forget. No, in fact, with practice, I had perfected that gift. I kept it, like an ace up my sleeve, for when I would need it.
Once out of curiosity, I decided to test the limit of my power. I locked the bathroom door, even though I lived alone, pulled the shades, and went to work, if you wanted to call it work. When I had summoned the wizards twenty-one times, I was exhausted – though not through, by any means – but somehow the number felt right. Twenty-one. An Ace and a King. The wining Blackjack hand. I was so proud of myself, the adrenaline rushed, my entire body was pink, and endorphins ran amuck. I had to share this accomplishment with someone! I picked up the phone and called a friend to boast of my incredible feat.
“Twenty-one times! Can you believe it? Have you ever come close to that? Come on, you have to admit, that’s pretty awesome!”
“Who is this?”
The voice was not a familiar one. I looked down at the phone and realized, my hands still shaking, that I was off by one number, and hung up quickly. I dialed the correct number and declared my feat again, this time to someone I knew, an old friend, whom I was sure would be impressed.
“Yes, I’m still here. That’s wonderful. I’m so… proud?”
I hung up on her, too. I didn’t care. I had accomplished something great, I was sure. And I was also sure that being superb at this skill would somehow be important one day. And soon after, I was thankful once again.
Now, just because I had this ace, didn’t mean I was a stranger to dating. I went through five boyfriends in the first half of my twenties, with numerous flings in between. This pattern continued into the latter half of my twenties. I felt no urgency toward monogamy. I enjoyed myself with the man of the month.
A friend set me up with one particular man who took me out for sushi. I knew very little about him, except that my friend promised that he was attractive and available. The reason for his availability soon became clear. He discussed himself in great and tiring detail with a cocky expression, until I could barely fake a pleasant face. The waitress brought another plate of sushi and set it down. I helped myself to the Tempura, Salmon Nigiri, and an entire roll of Yellowtail Hamachi, followed by a Tuna Roll, while he discussed his preference for day trading to that of momentum trading, and then verged into the stresses of maintaining an antique car collection. As soon as I had eaten all I could hold, I wiped my mouth with a napkin, folded it neatly and placed it on my empty plate. I gathered my purse and stood up.
“I’m terribly sorry,” I said, trying to look sorry. “But I have an ace.”
I went outside and called a cab, imagining the sizeable bill and the confused, if not irate, man that I must have left inside. I felt for those who did not carry the ace, those who had to endure dates like that one in order to satisfy that particular need. I was convinced that this wonderful playing card, this tree-taught power, would keep me from many a mistake and those monotonous relationships.
I was not going blind, as the joke went, nor was I blind to the fact that some looked down on this power. In fact, two cubicles over at work, I overheard one man harassing another.
“Look at your hands! Your veins are bulging out. We all know how you got that way. You need to get out more often. You know what they say.”
Well, it was true, his pulsing veins stuck out all over his hands, but then so did those of many athletic men I knew. Women’s veins, on the other hand, I didn’t notice as readily. But then, I looked at my own. Long slender fingers, but very veiny. Large, bluish, pumping veins. I had always thought it was genetics. Perhaps, the harasser was right. Maybe it was a trait of those that practiced their power too often. For several weeks I tried to keep my hands out of sight.
Then one Saturday morning, I waited in a line that snaked back and forth to the front counter of the Post Office for twenty minutes. Finally at the front, I gave the clerk my package and dug through my purse for my credit card, dropping my car keys and a quarter that rolled off somewhere. I retrieved the keys from the floor and turned back to the clerk. I was signing the receipt when a hand came up beside me with the quarter held between pointer and middle finger.
I looked down at the hand. A female hand. A left female hand with no wedding ring. And it was just like mine. Veins, great wonderful veins, full of life, crisscrossing the back of her hand. I followed the arm up to a face, one that I thought lovely, and one about my age.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you very much.”
About the author:
Amanda Pauley lives in southwest Virginia and works in McConnell Library at Radford University. She is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Hollins University. Her short fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Arts & Letters, Clinch Mountain Review, West Trade Review, Canyon Voices, Press 53 Open Awards Anthology, and the Masters Review Anthology.