Prologue.
kitten   June 26, 2006

Winter came fast that year, and hard, moving from temperate to tundra faster I could really remember, and that's when she moved. She'd been talking about it for a while, planning, that look of wanderlust creeping into the edges of her eyes as it did almost annually, and with each successive transition, leaving more and more things behind, selling them, scrapping them, opting usually to retain only a handful of furniture and keepsakes.

"What's the point?" she'd asked the first time. "Just clutter. Moving is a fresh start. And besides," she pointed out, "there's always what I carry up here." Tapped her temple. "In the end, memories are what make us who we are. Couple of pounds of tissue and chemicals storing it all. Trinkets are just that."

All the same, little things would invariably begin to creep in, piece by piece, colored light bulbs or sand gardens or candle holders. And every time, she would abandon most of them, starting anew in whatever place she had selected as her next waypoint.

This time it was a small loft on the east side, brick facade and gated access. "Welcome home!" the sign in front of the gate enthused, but I don't think she ever believed it.

. . . . .

"I think that's the last of it," she announced, shoving a couch against the wall. Darkness had fallen hours ago, early winter nights, and despite a radiator rattling to itself in the corner, the chill was cutting. We'd been at this all day. My muscles ached.

"For now," I said. "You always say that."

"Well, sure," she replied, "it takes at least five days to move. Or at least to get everything how you want it. That's why I keep the boxes -- they'll be good for something. You'll see."

"No," I said, "I meant you always say that, but then there's always something else you forgot, or buy. Done this three times with you now, so I should know."

"Something always has to get replaced," she declared. "I'm thinking maybe the kitchen table this time."

"Wonderful," I moaned. "Can't wait to help you hump that up here."

"Hey, I don't remember twisting your arm."

"I think I did that carrying the bed. Stupid railing," I added.

"Poor baby," she said. "Beer?"

"Uhm," I ventured, "sure. Where'd you get beer?"

"It was in the car trunk," she said, holding up two bottles of lager. "Free refrigeration. Always be prepared, right? Beer is a necessity, after a day like this."

"I'll drink to that."

She rummaged around in a box for a moment, came up with a wine key, and snapped the caps off the bottles. Took a pull off hers before handing one to me.

"Thanks."

"So. Let me give you the tour. There's this," she said, spreading her arms wide to indicate the entirety of the living room. "Over there is a little deck." Pointing to a screen-covered door near the corner. "Barely enough for one person, but good to have, I suppose."

"Nice."

"And," she continued, clutching her beer and disappearing into a doorway, "this." I followed her into the bedroom, exposed ductwork and unpainted walls. "Bed's gonna go here," she said, pointing at the far corner, "right beneath the best part."

Above the proposed location for the bed was a window. Just a window. "I don't get it," I said. "What's so great about that?"

"Really," she told me, "you didn't notice when we parked on that side?"

"Can't say as I did, no."

"Well, come look," she said, and shoved upwards against the frame, raising the glass. Beyond was an iron fire escape, with a view of the freeway, and the red and white glowing trails of traffic, small, slow pinpricks of light from here.

"No kidding," I said.

"No kidding," she echoed. "Worth the extra rent just for that."

I stood with her a moment in the open window, harsh winter air numbing our faces, and together we watched the world pass by.

. . . . .

In the buzzing flourescence of the grocery store, her cropped black hair looked almost blue, and her eyes darted from shelf to shelf in stark contrast to her slow stalking along the aisles, taken together to make her look like a predator, hunting rows of cartoned milk and chocolates and cleaning supplies, all of which she placed into the basket I carried as I ambled behind her.

"Just the basics," she said in response to my glancing at the things she'd chosen.

"Not much in the way of actual food here," I commented.

"I have takeout menus, wine and beer, a laptop and a view," she reminded me. "I'm practically a self-sufficient nation."

"With imported chocolate."

"It's for hot cocoa," she explained. "Winter and windows, you know? Alright," she continued, grabbing a bag of sugar, "I think that's it, unless there's something you wanted."

Her eyes bright, her scarf dark.

"No," I said.

"Then," she suggested, "let's get out of here."

Our boots crunched gravel as we walked back to her car.

. . . . .

The two of us sitting on her floor in the dark, backs against the wall, owed little to the alcohol now tangling with our neurons, and more to her forgetting to bring chairs or a lamp, which is something I predicted days ago but had forgotten to mention during the process of actually moving. The couch was there, of course, but she would have none of it, insisting that actually using furniture didn't fit with the motif of having just claimed her stake in a new abode.

"It's like that, when you move," she said, "or anyway it is for me. I like the first night to be very spare, reminds me to get my bearings again and lets me figure out how everything is going to fit."

"I thought you already decided where to put everything," I replied.

"I don't mean stuff," she sighed, bringing beer to her lips again. "I mean things."

"Ah," I teased, "that makes more sense, then."

"Quiet," she said, grinding her knuckles into my arm. "I mean, how my life is going to fit, in this place. It's new, every time."

Settling back a bit further, legs stretching before me on the bare expanse of carpet, I asked, "So is that why you do this every year? Be honest."

"I'm always honest with you," she returned. "So, it's like a game. Or an adventure. It lets me figure things out."

"What things?"

"Just things," she said, waving a hand. "When I need to clear my head, get a grip on something, sometimes it helps to get a fresh perspective. Or so they say. I take that to a sort of different level, moving my entire life somewhere else."

"So, you going to tell me what's on your mind this time?" I asked. "Or do I have to wait?"

"When I get it all straight," she replied, "I'll let you know."

For a moment, there was just the empty silence of night.

"Also," she said abruptly, "sometimes, I just like to see what difference it makes."

"Well, does it?" I said. "Make a difference, I mean."

"You'd be surprised," she informed me. "Different area of town, new places to haunt, it's like a whole new city, in a way. Like that time we drove to Portland, you remember? Saw your old house?"

"I remember."

"You drove on the way home," she said, almost dreamlike, "and I slept for a few hours, and woke up for a little while somewhere around Bridgeport. I thought, for a minute, that we were almost home, that this was just a side of the city I hadn't explored yet."

"So," I guessed, putting it together, "it's like being somewhere else entirely different, even though it's just another neighborhood. Until you've crawled through everything the area has to offer, take all the memories from it that you can, and carry it with you when you move on."

"Now you're getting it," she smiled. "Same city, sure, but it's easy to pretend it's not, if you avoid old routes, old habits, old acquaintances. The only constant," she finished, "has been you."

"Like the northern star."

"I guess you do help provide direction," she admitted. "Sometimes I need that."

"Sometimes, I do too," I said. "Though I was just quoting."

She glanced at me, something I more sensed than saw in the gloom. "I know that." She stood, wandered into the kitchen, and from my vatnage point on the floor I could see only the glow of the interior fridge light as she opened it. "Finish your beer," she ordered, and the clinking of glass was followed by the snapping sound of caps being removed and dropping to the countertop.

The last of the lager trickled out when I tilted the bottle to drain it, and I said, "Eventually you're going to exhaust this city, though. What then?"

Her voice from the kitchen: "I don't know. Maybe start the cycle all over again, see what I didn't notice the first time around. Maybe go somewhere else. Somewhere else," she emphasized, "that isn't just pretending to be."

Vague form moving through the darkness, soft footfalls. She returned with two fresh bottles, and took her place next to me on the floor again. "In a way," she mused, "you get a taste of it too."

"I guess that's true," I nodded. "You move, and I end up spending most of my time in whatever part of town you're in. Sort of funny how often I move without really moving, don't you think?"

"That'll change," she said.

"Doesn't have to."

"But it will," she proclaimed. "Sooner or later you'll find your own way and drift off."

"I'd come back," I said, peeling at the label of the beer bottle. "You know I would."

"I hope so. I'd like to keep you around forever."

"That's a long time," I replied. "You could change your mind."

"Never."

"So, what if I did leave?" I asked. "What would you do then?"

"I don't know," she said. "I haven't thought about it. Why would I need to do anything?"

"Maybe you wouldn't actually have to do anything," I conceded, "but who would you drag to the diner at three in the morning? Who would you sit in the dark drinking beer with? Who would you talk to?"

"Other friends, I guess," she said. "I do have them, you know."

"I know. It's just that you're really particular about the company you keep."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning," I said, downing a good portion of the beer, "that you and I have seen each other go through a lot. If I wasn't here, would you still be the same person? Would I be, if you weren't here? What do you think?"

"I doubt it," she said after a moment. "Doesn't matter how strong a person is, any significant encounter with someone else changes them. Even the ocean gets changed by the patterns in the sand. The tide comes in, swirls around in the sand, and flows back out, changing things." Her lips curved, the way they always did when she was giving something special thought. "Okay, so it's a little scary. But I'd adapt. No choice. Where would you go, anyway?"

"It was a hypothetical," I said. "Maybe just somewhere, to see if I could."

"Could?" she echoed. "Could, what?"

"Could get along on my own. See what I'm made of."

"You can do that right here," she said. "You just said, didn't you? We've seen each other go through a lot. Hell, we've been through a lot, together. And always, always, you've brought it back to me, whatever was troubling you, the way I do for you, and I've never held it against you. Trust me, kitten."

"I do."

"I know you do," she said, and put her hand on my back, in the space between the shoulderblades.

"I'd come back," I said again. "So then what, Alexis? If I left and came back, would you still want to keep me around?"

She grinned. "Even then," she said. "That's what forever means. Only," she cautioned, "I hope you won't."

"I won't," I said.

Three months later, that's exactly what I did.