It is dark when we arrive and all I know is that the fire risk is high and the road is winding. We argue, politely, over bedrooms – earth, water and sky – and wait for the fire to heat up. I stare at the night sky trying to count stars I have never seen before. We don’t know until later, but we leave the car headlights on by mistake.
Three and a half hours by car, with a stop along the way for ice cream, orange juice, shrimp and a darning needle – because what can’t you get at Walmart? – our arrival is sheer relief. I can see nothing but stars and dark and wood, but it’s already too good to leave.
I choose the earth room, and so do the ladybugs. I brush five off the bed before I climb in, and count four more flying around the lamp before my eyes close at 1:30am.
As we drive the conversation moves from replacement china to parent teacher conferences; we pass police cars and ABC stores, both of which we slow down for. We turn off the highway on a road called Pumpkin and wind our way up and round and up. She tells me – the one who keeps bees and who married her childhood sweetheart – not to expect anything pretty. It is beautiful.
It’s too dark to see what the mountain looks like and all I want to do is sleep. I am forced to eat chicken for dinner and ice cream after. There are Hershey’s kisses in my room.
One of the ladies – the one with the wicked laugh who has date night with her husband three times a week – gets a game out. We take turns picking cards and placing chips by them, guessing what is important to our new friends. She tells us we’ll learn so much about each other, that it’s the best game ever. I learn that pigs are not important to her, but sunsets are.
The fire is on and my belly is full; I go to bed sleepy and relaxed with the warm happiness of a margarita served in a glass jar.
You gotta have butter for grits. And biscuits with honey. And eggs and potatoes can’t be made without seasoning salt and more butter. Fruit and grape jelly, bananas and toast and eggs scrambled, sunny side up, loaded with cheese: I’ve eaten my fill by 10am and don’t know if my jeans will fit. The ladies tell me I need to eat more. They make me tea the English way, but it still tastes Southern.
I want to walk, to smell the trees and dirty my boots clambering over rocks and steep inclines. I only get as far as the porch. The mountains are for shopping, the ladies think. I have a little while, at least. I take photographs, swing in the porch seat, write a little. In the car again, I try to memorize the blue of the mountains and the bend of them against the sky. I smile into the wind.
The three ladies can shop: I don’t need a card game to learn that about them. We hit the nearest town in search of iron mice. They buy linens and dresses with seventy percent off and china. I buy gifts for each of them. They find a British pub, put there’s no tea on the coffee menu. I leave them to eat and find my way to the quilting store, where I buy fabric in green and brown and black: I will sew my memories together later.
It’s dark again by the time we leave. We don’t go back the winding way but I still enjoy the stars.
It’s chicken for dinner again, this time with green beans and sherry. The little lady – the one who mothers me and feeds me and forgets where she is – demands a crochet lesson. We sit by the fire and its 11pm before we get the yarn out. It takes an hour to do one row of stitches; I tell the little lady I’ll need more ice cream.
We make smores in between crochet rounds, but the fire risk is high and so we use the toaster oven. They are messy and sweet and perfect.
The conversation turns to HGTV while I redo haphazard rows of crochet. They need finished products to appease their husbands, they say. I laugh at their crochet deficiency and they feed me more chocolate while the fire keeps us all warm without margaritas. My stomach hurts from sugar and laughter, and when I leave them watching house renovations at 2am I brush another three ladybugs from my bed before I sleep.
You gotta have the cornbread hot from the oven. They slather honey on it for me and tell me to eat more. We finish the eggs and fruit. We regret not sitting outside the night before to enjoy the stars. Next time, we say.
They pack the car while I try to dry my hair with an ancient hairdryer. I look forward to the waterfall walk and they look forward to the vineyards on the way home. By noon we’re saying goodbye to the cabin that the lady with the bees told us was not pretty, but I have fallen in love with. I take more photos, eat the last of the kisses, and feel for the first time like it could almost be home.
I don’t know it, but I have packed two ladybugs in my case.
The waterfall walk is short and steep and wonderful. I take more photos, laugh at the little lady’s insistence on working her glutes as she jogs halfway up. There is a hammock, but none of us use it. This place would be perfect with a glass of wine, we say. I think it is perfect without, too.
It’s an hour to the first vineyard and the lady with the wicked laugh stays in the car to crochet. The lady who keeps bees and the little lady who mothers me both enjoy wine-tasting. I enjoy the view.
The next stop is another vineyard and I buy a box. I buy red and white and chocolate wine sauce. I plan a new chocolate brownie recipe with cabernet sauce and the ladies invite themselves over for dinner that day.
The drive back is dark and straight and I sleep. I wake up to the lights of the city and wish I hadn’t. We are quiet until one of the ladies asks which of us will be lesson planning before bed. I say I won’t be and I keep my promise.
I am the last to get dropped off and even though it is not late, I am tired still. I unpack and find a lonely kiss in the bottom of my bag and a ladybug in my cosmetic bag.
The kiss I eat, the ladybug I set free.