She is in the big city, alone. She finds a popular bar on 7th Ave, one with a crush of young people just off work and ordering Bud Light in bottles. She lays claim to one bar stool, because there is always one solitary bar stool available in a crowd, even in the busiest of bars. This is a universal truth. Some folks think the world shuts out single people, but she actually believes it reserves spaces for them, single spaces that groups are reluctant to fill.
She orders a Stella and a burger. The Australian tourists next to her are watching the Billy Joel concert on the TV above them. John Mayer is playing guitar, his eyes closed. The bartender takes care of her, with a charming Irish accent and one eye constantly scanning the crowd, anticipating the next order, collecting payment, trying not to drip beer on her sleeve. Thanks, he says with a practiced grin, over and over again, money exchanging hands over her shoulder. Excuse me, his customers apologize to her, as if they are interrupting.
She’s here because she can’t be alone in her hotel room. It’s the silence and the spaces that unnerve her. It’s knowing that Drew is out there somewhere, between the posts, behind the friends they have in common, beyond her barricade, but not unreachable.
Maybe it’s knowing she’s getting too old to be this cliché. Maybe it’s that she’s reached the age at which she feels invisible to anyone who doesn’t know her, who didn’t once truly know her.
This must get easier at some point.
She gets up quietly, smiles at the bartender, and heads back to the hotel.
Today, she is picking herself up, dusting herself off. Mulling a setback. Contemplating progress.
“And how does that make you feel?”
Jake’s answer to the therapist’s question yesterday wasn’t fair. None of this was really about him, he said. He really couldn’t do anything about it. He had shrugged.
Frustration had overwhelmed her. Why was she here with someone who could so easily throw up his hands, who didn’t want to be in charge, who would rather reserve the right to sit back, watch it all unfold, and then blame her. Her reaction was over the top, but she couldn’t hold it back. She felt angry about the suggestion that he was the victim, that there was nothing he could do, that this was all her fault, her decision.
Grow a pair. Sayeed said the words for her, with a question mark, so that she didn’t have to own them. Barely concealing a toxic mix of guilt and glee, she had watched him wrestle with this.
And then Sayeed named something else for her, saying it before she could recognize the shift in dynamics: judgement. Yes, of course she felt judged, she said. Jake was judging her, he was judging her, she was judging herself.
Somehow, this broke through. This word, powering a fresh rush of emotion, ripped the plastic sheeting separating the present and past rooms in her head, pushing her through a divide. As she struggled to focus, she sensed something moving in a recessed corner. She felt it heating her skin, accelerating her heartbeat, changing her vision. Something deeply buried—a box, the box, had been nudged and the answers living inside were vibrating.
She couldn’t get to it in time. Just as it began to take shape, as she felt she might reach it, as Sayeed’s face lit up in recognition and he leaned forward a little in his chair, as Jake let out a breath—their time was up. Session over. Back to work, to clients, to kids, her life framed above it, like a porch built over a place where flowers had once grown.
But the box had opened and she had recognized its contents—ragged keepsakes of accusation, aggression, derision, contempt, neglect. Memories buried or cast off, scars preserved.
Judgement shapes everything about us, leaving a patina, a shine, a bruise. It scalds us, freezes us, numbs us, nips at our heels, and locks us out. Or in. Sometimes it locks us in.
Her obsession with her phone is out of control. Facebook, email, LinkedIn, Words with Friends, text. She makes the rounds, sliding between screens to check for updates several times an hour. It would be more efficient to put those apps next to each other on the screen, but she has yet to do it. That would be an admission of guilt.
From the outside looking in, she can see that an obsessive disorder diagnosis wouldn’t be far off the mark, that her behavior comes damn close to stalking, even though she has tried to shut all connections to him down. It’s not good to have a constant feed of anything, but especially not this. She doesn’t want to know what he’s doing.
The waters are confusing now. Is she sinking or swimming? What once felt like breaking the surface now feels less clear. She feels unable to draw a fresh breath.
This is the behavior of a crazy person. A person so freaked out by what is or isn’t happening in her life that she embraces distraction. The best thing she could do at this point would be to throw the phone into the Sound. She can imagine standing on the sidewalk above the shore, watching it sink into the green gray water, the light going out, a feeling of freedom, a lightness of being. She might look like a figure in a painting, leaning against the railing, long hair blowing back, dark but luminescent clouds on the horizon. It might feel very, very good to disconnect in such a dramatic way.
When she’s able to think clearly, she can see what needs to happen. She tells him, no more. She makes the effort to explain, to close it down, to give him a clear offramp, one that doesn’t require admitting or confessing anything. She feels the finality of it. She cries. But it gives her something to feel. He’s in the abyss, unchanged by her changes, and she knows she needs to be much stronger to live there with him. She goes a week without checking her phone. Facebook, email, LinkedIn, Words with Friends, text—she steers away from all of it.
And then it buzzes. Him. A message with just enough context to make her question herself, to make her wish she could be different; lighter, freer, less hung up on the specifics. And her heart aches again, because there’s not enough to make her buoyant, and not enough to sink her either. He holds her, like a kite, pulling on the string just enough that she remembers there is one.
The last text she received from Drew featured his silhouette. He was driving somewhere, north she thought, though it wasn’t possible to know. It was light outside his window, with a blur of green grass and some kind of white building in the distance. She kept pulling it up on her phone, looking at his serious face, wanting him to turn to the camera and smile, guessing at what he’d been thinking when he sent it.
She’d sent him a picture first. He’d asked several times, for the kind of photo always getting politicians in trouble in the news, the kind that suggests a weakness, a shortcoming. She had always refused, although she knew what she would send. Something sensual in simplicity and defensible as art, representative of a desire he might recognize as his own. A suggestion of where he might place his hand. This was something she understood well, foreplay from a distance, the art of tension, the crafting of a good story.
The picture had been snapped inadvertently. She’d taken her phone out to capture the morning skyline from the bridge. Traffic was barely moving, the cars in front of her crawling toward a merge at the highway onramp. The day was grey, the soft grey that comes from a lifting fog and the promise of a clear sky above. The water was smooth and reflective, and the port was quiet. With one hand on the steering wheel, she was attempting to center the phone when she’d fumbled and nearly dropped it, an audible click responding to a finger closing around the case. When she turned it over, there it was, a thumbnail in the corner of the camera, soft and utterly compelling.
Something about the image dissolved her resistance. It captivated her, the evidence, so obvious and real she could almost feel him in the car beside her, reaching over, insistent and possessive. It felt so very, very easy. So honest and legitimate to send it, so unreasonable to keep it from him. If it didn’t generate an equal and proportional response, if she didn’t feel a vibration in the air between them, she deserved every pound of backlash she’d risk to reach him.
She stood at the front desk for a moment, hesitating. It had been a long day. At 5am, she’d run along the waterfront, cutting through the moist fog that muffled the city. Only the sounds on the water were clear, the fog horns deep and insistent, the seals occasionally protesting as they vied for space on a buoy. The air was still heavy and cold hours later when she’d dropped the girls at school, leaning down to give each a hug before they turned and disappeared into the building. And then she’d been on the plane, lifting up above layers of grey to reveal smooth air and brighter light. It was at this point she’d finally exhaled. She’d stared out the window, seeing but not seeing the birds eye view of her route.
She’d touched down north of his city, after flying low over the hills, buttes, and rice fields she knew by heart. This had been her territory too. With feet on the ground, she’d made the drive west, back toward the water but stopping just inland. She’d stood for six hours in front of an easel, ignoring the ink on her fingers, the smell of badly brewed coffee and stale donuts, and the shifting and settling of chairs as the class sighed, trying to get comfortable. She’d stayed after, in that room with no windows, to type up her notes. A beautiful landscape of vineyards lay just beyond, and as she finished, she thought about a very different kind of trip that could be had there. Instead, two more days of this to go.
Then dinner with the client, appreciatively sipping a local red wine, listening attentively and doing her best to stay as engaged and extroverted as possible. Agreeing to meet again, same time, same place the next day, she said good night to her co-workers and watched the elevator door close. And now, here she stood at the hotel desk, checking in, too tired to debate the wisdom of impulse. She slipped the extra key card into the envelope and sealed it, writing his name across the crisp white front, underneath the logo and address. Drew. She took a quick picture of the envelope with her phone and handed it to the woman on the other side of the counter. A pause at the elevator and the image was sent, the whisking sound a confirmation. The rest was up to him.
If a picture carries a thousand words, then hers was an efficient expression of a wish too fragile to say aloud. She wished that when she opened the door to her room two nights later, she might see his shoes on the floor in front of the bed. That, as she stepped in and placed her bag on the floor and her key on the dresser, she might turn to see a glass being set down firmly on the nightstand, and as she kicked her shoes off, she might hear him say hello. That might be the only word said for quite some time. Except yes. More. Please. She imagined her mind turning off as everything else turned on.
In the morning, she might wake to find an empty pillow beside her, shoes gone, ice melted in the glass beside the bed, transparent and weakened, like her resolve. But then again, she might find him next to her, a grin on his face and a whole day in front of them. He’d drive her back to the airport, but the long way.
This was a memory she wanted to make. One that might provide ongoing clarity, or give her courage, or simply delete the question mark she’d lived with so long, the one she couldn’t seem to leave behind. There were twenty reasons not to pursue this, the best perhaps the lie they’d have to tell to get there and the sobering truths that might follow. Her request was reckless, childish, and selfish, with no clear outcome. But she didn’t care.
Distance makes the water between us look calm and cold, softening the swells and blurring the horizon so that sky and sea are opposite ends of an ombre spectrum of grey. Its soft, ghostly veil lulls my ache into something unrecognizable, something remote.
The website is down. His mother answers the phone and though I expect to hear her voice, for a moment I pause. Will she know me? I give my childhood name in hopes that she will, and I realize too late it won’t match the name she will see on my check. Still, she warms as she fits the puzzle pieces together, and I chat easily with her for a few moments, as if there aren’t years and miles and feelings for her son between us. It is only a few moments, and then she is gone.
One of her wreaths will ship as a gift to my father, the other will come to me. It will hang beside my front door, where the scent of home will linger long after the holiday has passed. Drew’s mother has been making wreaths since I was in middle school, and I have ordered them each year, turning the memory of a small town over and over again in my pocket, like a smooth stone, held with a reverence I can not admit out loud. The fragrance can take me to him in an instant, to his house in the woods, the outbuilding with it’s floor strewn calf high with fir boughs, and long fold out tables where his mother and sisters would stand twisting and bending and turning the wreaths as they laughed with each other. Where Drew faded in and out, shrugging off a jacket, bouncing a ball, trying to catch an eye, alternately helping and hindering the creative process.
I could stop ordering the wreaths, stop pushing aside the curtain at it’s edge to peer into the past, stay numb beside the ocean, never looking back. But the distance is something that needs to be measured from time to time, like the distance between revolving planets, like the frequency of waves lapping at the shore.