[I wrote this a couple years ago, for an anthology that I missed the submission date for.]
The water is piss warm and thick, clinging to my ankles. I can wade for what seems like forever, out into the Chesapeake Bay, and never go over my head. I know I would, eventually; the carriers from the Naval base pass by without running aground, and their draft is more than my height.
But here, where the river meets the bay, ironically called Ocean View though it is not the ocean I look at, it feels like it.
“You okay?” He takes my hand and squeezes. “I thought you liked the water?”
“I do.” But this is not water. I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t water. Water is cold, cold enough to bite your skin pink, even in summer; thin and clear, steel blue under the sun.
“Come on.” He pulls at my hand and I follow. I always follow. I followed him here.
If I hadn’t, where would I be? Probably standing at a northern shore, barren with pebbles and periwinkles left behind by the ebb of a thirty-foot tide.
We’d met in Florida on a summer vacation from university – though not spring break. There were no parties or drinking when we met, just a quiet conversation in the bleak of a Christmas without. I’d left home for a vacation, unable to bear the thought of putting up a tree and decorating it, couldn’t bear the thought of snow and skidoos and skating.
I’d just lost Michael, mine since high school, to a bitter stormy sea, and I’d wanted nothing to do with that northern bay. Didn’t want to watch the tides at Fundy, smell the salt-seaweed concoction of air that heralded low tide. Couldn’t’ bear the thought of family attempts at cheer. Afraid that I’d get drunk and stupid – really stupid.
It had hurt.
Children rush by, splashing and diving, throwing salt water into the air. Seagulls wheel on the wind, begging for French fries from the patrons of the burger joint across the street. The combined cacophony triggers a headache.
“We can leave.” He is so sweet, so careful, like he knows I’m cracked and the least little tap will shatter me.
But he only means the beach, and I don’t think that is enough.
He takes me to a restaurant: seafood. “Your favorite.” He grins, his elbow a gentle prod in my side. He wants me to laugh with him, to show my teeth and prod him back. But somehow, my laughter is missing in action, lost somewhere in a battle between my anger and depression.
The waitress smiles and bats long, mascaraed lashes in his direction. He smiles back at her, polite and cool, but his fingers find mine and twine into them, curling around my hand, hot.
My fingers fit there, between the crooks of his, aligning with the knuckles on the back of his hands, like grooves worn after centuries.
She leads us to a two-seater table, the top not big enough for the menus. Our knees bump under the table, my feet settle atop his, tapping his ankles.
There is fish on the menu, but nothing I recognize. I look at the choices, filled with spices and sauces, and wonder where the fish is. I opt for something benign, grilled, with vegetables and a baked potato. He asks for the fish stew and a bottle of white wine.
“No.” Heartache. But I won’t tell him. No sense in two of us hurting.
We cross the Chesapeake Bay bridge tunnel, traveling north for a working vacation. He’s giving a lecture somewhere in Massachusetts on Friday, so we’re spending the weekend before driving back.
I’d gotten flak about taking the time off. I didn’t care. I would have quit if I’d needed to. No way was I letting him leave me here, alone, missing him, thinking about everything.
It is thirteen miles to drive across the bay. The radio is off; it goes out when we enter the tunnels, traveling a mile below the piss-water surface. In the tunnels, traffic is two-way; on the bridges, it is divided.
Even though it is not even light out yet – he thought to leave early to beat most of the traffic – there are several cars crossing with us, passing by us. He lets them speed by, not worried about being the first across, the leader out of the dark.
I stare out the side window, at the tiles glistening on the tunnel wall.
Outside, the roadside lights illuminate the road but not much else. Out there, beyond the lit circles, is water, waves, small fishing boats.
We were stuck last summer, here on the bridge. An accident had stopped all traffic. We weren’t allowed out of our cars – the police had VDOT workers patrolling – and he’d had to turn off the engine so we wouldn’t run out of gas. We hadn’t planned for a stop.
Hot, even with the windows down and cooler air from the water blowing in. I’d finished my paltry bottled water quickly, and then his. “I don’t need it.” He’d smiled, brushing light fingers through the damp hair at my left temple. “We’ll be started again soon.”
But we hadn’t, and I’d had to crawl into the back seat, lie down and stare at the headliner. The car was older, a bit worn, and the foam had been coming loose in blister-spots.
We’d finally made it across and he’d stopped first thing on the peninsula so I could get out and walk around, breathe deep to fill my lungs with cooler air.
This time, there is no need to stop on the other side. I can’t even tell when we’ve finished crossing except the toll booth is there, a glowing fluorescent box in the middle of the road.
We take turns driving, napping, looking for a rest area. We don’t travel fast; we gave ourselves plenty of time – an extra day – to get there. We have no agenda, no itinerary; it’s like we are wandering to a final destination, nomads on a seasonal trek, knowing where we are going, but not exactly how we will get there.
He is asleep when I take a side road, tired of the semis and horns, speeders and chicken-shit scaredy cats that go 50 in the far left lane. It’s a winding road, trees on both sides. I check the GPS; our nose is heading north, more or less.
He snorts and shifts in his seat. He’s too tall for the car. But this one is new, bought after the old one conked out and he’d gotten a promotion to full-time professor at ODU. He blinks, looking right and left.
“Where are we?”
He isn’t angry, just curious, leaning forward in the seat.
“Not sure. I just got tired of the highway.”
“Okay.” He settles back, stretching his left arm over and behind my seat, propping one foot against the door.
It’s just the noise of the tires on the road. It is not loud; the car has insulation to muffle the road, struts to keep it riding smooth, and heated leather seats.
“Do you want the radio on?” I ask. I like the quiet, but I know he sometimes finds it uncomfortable.
“No. I’m good.”
He’s watching out the window, the tint shading a slanted line across his face. The trees have thinned to fields and there are horses and cows and the occasional llama.
“I was offered a job in Colorado.”
“Colorado?” Mountains. No ocean for miles – thousands of miles. “Is it a promotion?”
I grip the wheel, fingers squeezing. I can’t do mountains. I need the ocean, even the imposter-ocean where we live now.
“I turned it down. Don’t worry. I know you.”
I stretch my fingers, keeping my thumbs hooked to the wheel to steer. “It’s not fair to you.”
“It’s not fair to you if we move. We met half-way already.”
Half-way. Norfolk. The almost-middle point between his home and family – the old gray-haired woman that doesn’t like me and the sullen sister that sneered through the wedding even though I made her my first bridesmaid – in Florida and mine in maine, with all my cousins and aunts and uncles and more cousins that still haven’t visited though they all promised they would.
I blink water out of my eyes, warm salty water, rather like the stuff in the Chesapeake. It even makes my nose run.
“Yeah. A little.” He knows which home I mean.
I nod. He’s always hungry and running to burn it off. He’s fit and trim and women look at him with want in their eyes and I wonder what he sees in me.
“Let’s stop at the next place we find.”
It’s a little place, a box on the side of the road with a ten-foot fake pizza rising off the roof. It’s nearly empty, only a trucker that probably belongs to the purple semi outside sitting at one of the dozen red-checked tables. There’s an alcove by the rest rooms with pac man and space invaders blinking and beeping.
He searches his pockets for quarters and I dig through my purse to give him the ones I have.
He nods, not really paying attention. He’s counting quarters in sets of two; he has enough for three games.
I smile and shuffle to the counter to order a large to share, and two soft drinks. At home, I would have ordered a medium (it would have been the same size) and two pops.
“Damn!” He stands before the video machine, hands on hips, shaking his head. “I’ve lost it.”
“Lost what?” I sit at the table nearest the alcove, and set down two Styrofoam cups full of crushed ice and little drink. There are crumbs on the table, so I take a napkin and brush them to the floor.
“My touch.” He wiggles his fingers in the air, wagging his brows for emphasis. He looks so young. Too young.
I sit and lean forward, winking slow so he understands my words. “Trust me. No you haven’t.”
He leaves the game and sits at the table, tossing the rest of the quarters on the table. He rests his elbows on the surface and smiles. “I’m glad you think so.”
“I know so.” It’s not a brilliant conversation; which is too bad for a man with a PhD in Medieval Literature. But then, I’m leading it, and I have yet to go back and finish. So it’s my fault, not his.
His head dips low and I see his lips up close, full and pink-brown. My eyes drift shut when he gets too close for me to focus and let those lips touch my own. It is sweet and quick and over in a heartbeat.
“Here you go.” The waitress sets the pizza on the table in a to-go box and pivots back to the counter. She didn’t bring plates, so we eat over the box, picking up the stringing cheese that falls and placing it in our mouths. It is hot and spicy, crispy and gooey, smooth and salty. Perfect.
We can’t eat it all, so the box will go in the back seat with the little cooler of bottled water we brought from home.
“My turn.” He pulls his keys from his pocket and jingles them, dangling them from his fingers. There are only three keys on the chain: the car, the house, and his office.
My chain has the second key to the car, the second key to the house, the key to the security box at the bank that holds my grandmother’s sapphire ring and our marriage certificate, the key to the store room at the insurance office where I work, which matches the key to the office’s front door, the old key to the old car, and the key to a briefcase buried in the back of my closet. It also has a hockey player charm given to me by my brother, a pen light so I can see to unlock the car at night, and a little can of mace that doesn’t work.
In New Jersey, we can see the remnants of the hurricane that blew north last summer, pummeling the coast and its unprepared inhabitants. Everyone in Norfolk had prepared; we prepared in April, at the beginning of the season, buying water and canned food and batteries and placing it all in a big plastic bin.
He always prepares. I had scoffed our first year together. But when that first storm hit and the house shook and we had no power and water pushed in under the door, I was happy he did.
We drive around New York, heading for Pennsylvania. It is a long detour but he hates driving through New York; it’s too fast, too erratic. He’s scared we’ll get a flat and be killed by thugs who want our hubcaps.
Western New York State is beautiful, slower.
We decide we’re close enough to stop for the night, stopping at a small motel nestled into the side of a hill. There is only the office and six other doors. The exterior is stone trimmed with rustic wood. A rocking chair sits outside each door on its own little porch. It looks like someone cutout the mountain to put it all there.
The girl behind the counter has black hair, purple lipstick and thick black eye-liner. She pushes a registration card at me and I fill it out. He hands her a credit card and she runs it through the machine, ripping off the receipt and handing it over without speaking.
He signs the slip and I push the paper back. She checks them over while reaching for a key lined up on hooks behind her.
“You can have number 6.” She scribbles on the card and turns away. “Checkout is at 10.”
The room is small, filled with bed and a dresser with a flat screen TV on top. There are two doors: one for a small closet that smells of old socks and a small bathroom that smells like lemon bleach. The walls are wood paneled, and I’m surprised it’s not from the 1970s.
“Not bad.” He sets our one piece of luggage on the bed and turns within the room. His hair brushes the ceiling fan and he runs his fingers through to resettle it.
“Don’t do any jumping jacks.”
He lunges at me, tickling to make me laugh, and it works. We fall on the bed, a little out of breath, faces close. He strokes a finger down my cheek, my neck, under my shirt. I arch up, moaning. Lips touch and linger.
All is good.
My stomach rumbles in the morning. We skipped dinner, having better things to do than eat. He’s playful, telling jokes and laughing at nothing. I feel light for a change, open.
It is an older woman at the desk now, dark hair with white-gray roots and cigarette lines around her mouth. She smells of stale tobacco. She prints our statement and holds it out, her fingers weighted by too-gold rings.
He drops the suitcase in the trunk and resumes the driver’s seat. The sun is out and we have to be in Worcester by 6 pm; he gives his lecture tomorrow at 10.
But we still have a whole day to go three hours.
We eat breakfast in the car. It’s just 7-11 breakfast sandwiches and orange juice, bought while we topped up the gas tank.
The road is narrow, but striped and the houses are old and set back. Deep green lawns touch the ditch, crossed by black-asphalt drives. There are no toys in the yard, no dogs at play.
They look lonely.
“Do you want kids?” I blurt out the question without thinking. We’d never discussed it before. Hadn’t needed to.
“Yes.” His eyes remain fixed ahead, but his fingers are tight on the wheel.
He shrugs, but it’s tight. Not so much casual as unwilling.
“The small bedroom would make a lovely nursery, don’t you think?” The bedroom is tucked away in the corner of the second story of the Victorian we’d bought near the university. Our room is next to it, our private bath converted from the identical small room on the other side.
“Pink or blue?”
“Do you want pink or blue walls?”
“How about yellow?”
“Yeah. It’s a happy color. But neutral, you know?”
He nods and glances at me.
I meet his gaze, keeping my eyes fixed.
His grin is slow coming, like the slow-motion eruption of a rose bud into a bloom on the Discovery Channel. When it is done, it lights his whole face, spreading to his eyes and even his ears. Yes, he had happy ears.
I dig through my purse, looking for the little pink plastic case I keep my pills in. It is at the bottom. I open it and look at the little silver flap where I took one this morning. I glance over at my husband; he’s trying to watch me and the road at the same time.
There is nothing behind us on the road nor anything ahead. I press the button and my window edges down. I toss the case out the window, turning to watch it bounce along the side of the road before disappearing into the water-filled ditch.
“Putting the tadpoles on birth control?”
“They might need it.”
We’re quiet. He’s still grinning. I’m wondering what I’ve done. Am I ready to have a baby? What about my job? School?
“Will I stay home?”
“If you want.” He glances at me, his lips straight. “You could go back to school. If you want.”
He turns back to the widening road. It’s up to four lanes; two each direction. And there are more cars, trucks, even a semi barreling along in the left lane. The car shudders when it passes.
“We’re getting closer. Do you want to check into the hotel or do something else? I’m sure there a museum or bookstore we can wander around in.”
My hand is on my stomach and it feels empty; stomach and hand. “The hotel I think.”
I drift my fingers over the flatness of my belly. “No. I want to make a baby.”
The car speeds up and he starts passing others on the road.
But we make it to the hotel by noon.
The crowd stands to clap after his presentation. I stand, too, clapping harder than anyone else. I want to whistle and howl, but I know it would be inappropriate. One does not scream like a fan girl at a conference about Political Representation in Medieval European Manuscripts.
But I wanted to.
He meets me after, ducking quick to kiss me before the next person grabbed him to pump his hand and slap him on his back. I stand next to him, tucked under his shoulder, arms wrapped around his middle. He smells like hotel shampoo and Old Spice.
I slip a hand under his jacket, rubbing his back over his shirt. He’s tense, the attention stiffening his spine.
When the next presentation starts, we sit in the back, in a corner, me against the wall. I lean into him, resting on his shoulder. He kisses my temple and snuffles my hair.
“You smell good.”
“So do you.”
“Let’s sneak back up to our room.” He tugs on my hand.
“We can’t.” I nod to the end of the row. Men and women fill the seats, sitting straight in their chairs, heads trained ahead, unsmiling.
He sighs and settles back.
“Hey, it’s your conference.”
After the last speech, with everyone outside the meeting room, happy hour drinks in hand, I whisper that I have a headache. He kisses my cheek and tugs me along. I keep my eyes closed, a wince etched into the skin of my face. He makes our apologies, leading me, blind, away from the crowd.
The elevator is empty.
“You okay?” He whispers, his lips sending ripples down my neck.
“I’m fine.” I whisper back, letting my own lips and tongue tell him the whole story.
He grips me, pulling me close, pushing me against the wall of the elevator. His kiss is rough, draining.
We barely make it to the room before the clothes start coming off.
That evening, we eat in our room, feeding each other bit with our fingers and drinking wine from a shared goblet.
I call work in the morning while he’s checking us out of the hotel to resign.
“What the f*&^?”
“I giving you my resignation.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Virginia is a right to work state. I don’t even have to do this, I just need to not show up.”
“I don’t have anyone to replace you.”
“Not my problem.”
We are really slow driving home. I no longer have a job to worry about and there is plenty of time for me to register for a few classes to get used to going back to school. Maybe I’ll just audit at first, make sure of what I want to do.
“I don’t want to work in insurance anymore.”
“Whatever you want. Take classes in something you like.” He’s licking a melting chocolate ice cream cone sitting on a park bench under an elm tree that dapples his skin. We stopped for lunch and decided to just have dessert, buying from a vendor cart. My ice cream is melting too, but neatly in a bowl.
“I like art.”
“Then take art.”
“I can’t make money in art.”
“So?” He lets the dripping chocolate run down his hand. “You can always decide to teach.”
So says the teacher.
I stick out my tongue, covered in chocolate sprinkles.
He kisses me, stealing the candy from my mouth.
“Hey!” But I don’t mind. He can have anything of me he wants.
We come home through Hampton, across a different (shorter) bridge tunnel. It’s afternoon in the middle of Saturday, so there isn’t the usual backup of cars. I can see the Naval Base, with the carriers at the end piers, from the passenger window.
My stomach lurches and rights itself.
I can’t wait to get home.