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His engine sputters to life on a brisk summer evening, and I refuse to admit it hurts to watch him leave. I’ve always been one to have the last words, and my pride has nailed my feet to the dirt road. My eyes strain to watch the outline of his broken down truck putt-putt down the valley of lush trees, but I turn my head and retreat into my safe haven, my home where the familiar scent of antique wood wraps my brain around the next morning’s chores. No one answered my call when I inhaled dust circling in the air. Very few times have I felt trapped behind a musty curtain of fog and ash; this is one of those times. I never knew loss; what an inconceivable feeling that forces me to retrace my four years with him.
The striated sky, hues of purple and blue and pink and orange, lingers overhead, ready to collapse, the calm before the storm. There is nothing more I can do to stop the oncoming rage, like trying to prevent a fat kid from scarfing down those last bites of hamburger, like deceiving the inexorable.
In a blink of an eye, he’s cut out of my life. Just like I thought he never would be.
Day breaks. Birds flutter out of their nests, hesitant to sing for me. Clouds drift lazily with the rolling landscape, unwilling to reveal the sun to me. Somewhere within my haven, cereal clinks into a still-wet bowl, and milk follows suit, sloshing up the sides and threatening to spill over.
A grave little thought crosses my mind right as five long, slender fingers crawl up the small of my back, tiptoeing along my pelvis to the small bump that is my stomach. And it lays flat, all five fingers spread out flat like a keepsake handprint searing my skin. I know what I must do.
I desperately begin to cry.
He always wore a 100% cotton T-shirt, chosen blindly from the shelves in his closet, that felt cool against my cheek during the summer, and we always drove aimlessly until rolling into a parking lot, bakeries or fast food joints or ice cream shops or casual restaurants bordering our choices. I spent over $400 and gained over 5 pounds by the start of school, and my long-time planned first-day-of-school outfit was snug against my hips and tight around my belly. I remember feeling pregnant and scared myself to death going over the absurdity of the idea after I spent half a half an hour scrutinizing myself, scolding myself.
What I did on my summer vacation was… hoard food.
My favorite chain swung from the rearview mirror like a tetherball whirling around a pole whenever we raced over speed bumps. Sometimes it threatened to untangle and fall with a thump to the ground, and so it would disappear under his feet, slither around the brakes and gas pedals as we would continue flying over petty obstacles until he wouldn’t be able to pump either, wouldn’t stop us from striking the broad oak tree or maybe running into a crafted metal gate. An image too reenacted in paranoia suddenly became so real one ghostly afternoon when a lucky ray of sunlight escaped the heavy cloud cover. A flash of light swept over my eyes.
“Jesus, what is wrong with you?”
It was then that I realized I was clutching the seat, wavering beneath me. I felt my stomach lurch and drop and spew a mess of digested hamburgers and fries. I swear I saw the dashboard melting under the malodorous fumes, but I averted my eyes because his frustration rang loud over his efforts of reassurance. It couldn’t be a coincidence that I saw tall deciduous trees shedding their dress, which fell covering the nascent vegetation, green like the world should be.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love him anymore. It wasn’t even that I had my doubts. Because I did and I didn’t. I felt my throat close every time he called asking how my day was, sometimes concern lingering on the edge of his lips, and I choked out a “Fine” and a “How about you?” before spinning onto a nearby couch. His faraway humming from the other side of the world riled my conscience until it became unbearable to listen to.
He didn’t understand my frustration, and eventually got frustrated himself, almost angry with me. I felt the blow of hatred with each insult he dealt me, and then turning around to say he was unperturbed by my behavior, that he didn’t even care what I did because nothing he said could change that anymore. He didn’t try to hide the lies, knowing very well what hurt me and how to go about doing so. Cruelty always seems to take form in your most treasured possessions.
Eventually, I just ignored all his excuses and drastic mood swings that outswung mine because I couldn’t deny what was growing inside me. A complication I wanted to kill, spending weeks on Vitamin C capsules twice a day and poisonous pennyroyal tinctures mixed with honey water, haunted my nightmares. The night he slapped me hard across the cheek so that my skin burned with shame at what I’d said, I didn’t cry… or I couldn’t cry. We drove home in silence and parted without a habitual peck goodbye. I locked my doors, something I rarely do because if there’s anything that my parents are good for, it’s respecting my privacy, and dipped a toe into the tub I had filled with scalding hot water. Hot, f****** hot. So I waited on my bed, rubbing the elastic skin stretched over my soon-to-be-burst balloon, wishing the hostility running through my veins was enough to kill it.
What do you want from me? What do you want from me! I wanted to scream at him, hit him, hurt him the way he hurt me. But I ran from him. I sprinted, pushing myself as hard as I could, receiving no help from the stupid little thing inside me, and he still caught me. I had run out of ideas, and he had already forgiven me. Word must have gotten out, someone must have noticed my bulging form that I couldn’t hide with XS shirts anymore.
I refused to say anything, clamping my mouth shut as he apologized and offered. I refused to look in his eyes as montages of our best times sailed around us. It was then that I had wondered if he could read my mind when I tugged repeatedly at his shirt. Conflicting thoughts filled with panic and desire, but neither of those mattered then. We fed on each other’s heavy breaths and drank down the tingling feeling originating first at our fingertips. When I finally caught the weak dullness that had become his eyes, scratched and dirty like a child’s plaything, I remembered the way I had crumpled under his hands running their track, seemingly intrinsically. Just as instantaneous as it had happened, it ended, and he collapsed on my chest with a weary smile that I returned. He stretched his neck until his mouth was wet against my ear…
And I couldn’t place the guilt or the blame. An inevitable next step threatened to raze the carefully stacked stones, and I couldn’t decide between relief and helplessness. All I knew was that I couldn’t look at him anymore.
I wonder if he’s staring up at the same expansive blue as I lift my chin to the sky, the baby grass blades tickling the back of my neck. I curl up in a ball, a horrible scarlet stain crawling out from under me. The grass dies beneath me, crumbles into an ugly brown shag, and I try to pretend I’m swimming lest I wake up screaming, drowning in my own mistake. The pain becomes intolerable, the same tortuous feeling I felt for him back when I could not fathom the elevated adoration overtaking my physical body, but there it was… doing just that.
… “You, Ella, are the most important person in my life,” he whispered, the declaration muffled as he kissed my neck. His lips firm on my forehead before grazing the bridge of my nose, the tip, and finally, hovering over my own.
Arlington Heights, Illinois
Crooks, South Dakota
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