by Scott Jones
Fall, before the first snow. He stares sideways at her, chisels her face into his memory. Her soft round chin nests into her turtleneck. Her fat lips pucker, some drifting thought an unhappiness to her. Smooth and puffy lips, can’t be taken seriously, makes her look like a petulant child. He can’t see her mossy-agate eyes because she has lowered them, cast their gaze into the fire in the stone box. But he knows they shade out to the edges with a darker brown tint and have smudges of softest yellow that radiate out through the amber. Her eyelashes appear fuller in the firelight – less threadbare than in the harsh morning.
He wants her hand, creates a little gesture like a crab that inches across the couch. But her hands are crammed into her jeans pockets, strangled at the wrists from the denim’s tightness. He allows his hand to fall limp, against her thigh.
She says, “Tomorrow.”
He jerks his chin away from her, aims it at the dark in the corner. “It’s the only thing I think about.”
“I don’t want you to come with me to the airport.” Her neck compresses, draws her head into her sweater.
“You don’t have to go.”
She sets a little “paugh” free, a breath of derision. “It’s my career. It’s a job. It might be the job.”
He’s trying to cry, but he does it to manipulate her. “How will this thing we’ve got survive? You two states away, me here?”
She shrugs, like the outcome is already decided. “If it’s real, then we’re okay. Otherwise, it’s for the best.”
Iron-hard winter. Since her return, she’s lived in her own cloud: all storm, black silences before battle, a freeze in the wind. He leaves the room when she trudges in. They haven’t been out of the house in a week; the cars lie buried under sheets of ice outside the front door.
He has manufactured a disastrous breakfast – soggy french toast that never toasted, egg mix now a cold slurry within the thick bread. He tries not to watch her, but it’s like he expects her to change. To another mood, into a different person, maybe a beast that springs out. She keeps a death grip on the coffee cup, all fingers white on the black mug, thumbs out of view. Mouth masked, nose with its pug shape hanging over the edge. Her forehead is waffled like alligator skin; it reveals the tension underneath. Her hair races back into the ponytail. He feels his heart’s love, a heart so tight it will implode. He has no inkling what any human being could say.
Two weeks since she quit the program in New York and returned home. Days of scuffing around the house, the complaints about the dirt – real or otherwise – the cobweb in the overhead light, the darkness outside. Nights thrashing, the sheets left in a tangle that coils toward the floor. He rises at midnight: he shifts to the couch to sleep. He won’t ask her what happened; she has to tell him. But he fears.
With a rushing guilt he dumps the news on her. “I’ve found a job filling in for a tenured prof who caught hepatitis. Medieval lit, not my thing, but I need the work and we need the money.”
“You don’t teach Chaucer. Or any of that.”
He has to allow she’s right. “I’ve been boning up on it. It’s different reading as a grownup than as a feckless twenty-year-old.”
“Do you get anything permanent? Associate prof? Benefits?”
He shakes his head. Then sneaks it in. “The thing is, it’s not our school here. It’s down-state two-hundred miles. I can’t come home except weekends, and I need weekends to keep ahead of the syllabus.”
She glances around the room, as if, alone in the house, she searches for his memory. She touches his hand, rubs it, worms around to slip her fingers into his loose grip. “Don’t.”
“I have to.” Maybe it’s over.
That wild rush of guilt – it’s the relief he’ll experience when he closes the door behind him.
Spring is the false bitch. For both of them it means Claritin and Flonase, Benadryl and tissues. He senses her beside him like a board, waiting for her next explosive sneeze. He wants the windows closed, she wants fresh air. The old wooden boards above him are dark with stain and age and lives acted out small. He thinks he can see the green golden grains of pollen float above him.
The first part of spring break had been the best time they’d had in years. A renewal, sex so physical and immediate. He likens it to a sweaty workout that shoved them together, jerked them apart, shook them back and forth. Coupled and yet alone in the strain to fall into a personal climax. Now, without the physical combat to tamp down on his allergies, block his sinuses, he counts days until he drives south to work.
She sneezes. A messy one, but through the tissue she says, “I tried reading, but it just depressed me. I’ve been watching TV.”
He’s aware, boy is he aware. The flickering eye in the living room, night after night. She binge-watches. His monthly check pays for cable; cable offers its cornucopia. Bereft of speech, she scrolls through its hours hardly blinking. Four hours of the Dog Whisperer at a sitting. British baking shows back to back. A penchant for house flipping.
The Kleenex box cuddles between her breasts. He says, “I could read to you, like in the old days.”
“When I was fun?” She turns her head to the window, like something had passed by, flickered in the dark. “The schools, they don’t even reply to the letters and the resumés.”
“Have you thought about the junior colleges?”
She snorts. “Idiot. I worked through every one in a three-state area. Nobody even has a history curricula anymore. They’re all trade schools.”
He thinks she doubts his empathy, his ability to measure her dejection. He thinks she may be right. He yearns for her to shake this thing.
Somewhere in the room an old-fashioned clock ticks. In the kitchen, a calendar hangs on the wall, shows off puppy pictures and a few remaining days. He has time.
Summer had once brought them here, where they had tried to carve out a life north of purgatory and south of Canada. She fishes – he never has. He hunkers down on an old five-gallon bucket, watches her back. She hangs her legs off the dock, casts out into a water so still, the clouds exist both above them and below, like they might be in a levitating chunk of the world. He’s had enough sense to scooch to the side. Her lure flashes back, forward, doesn’t hook him.
He watches her, conscious she’s mindful of his stare. She breathes slow and calm, the fishing a yoga stretch played half-in, half-out of the water. Cast, pray, retrieve. Her pale arms glimmer, hanging out of a shirt with its sleeves hacked off. His shirt. He marks how the biceps contract and slacken: her skin turns a liquid that covers the sinew and muscle beneath. He glances at his watch. An hour since she has spoken.
She can’t see his slight gesture – but she rouses at that moment into speech. “It’s next Monday. Six days to pack.”
He stares at her hair, blonde in streaks under the sun. “I know.”
“How bad can it be?” Her head dips over to her shoulder; the loose hair hides it.
“Sul Ross U? You interviewed there, just like me.”
She turns her head, not quite far enough to see him. “No. I meant Del Rio.” Her neck shortens, draws her head into the collar of her shirt.
“The web says it sucks.”
Her laugh, springs out, chokes off. “Can’t be worse than this last year.”
“Truest thing you’ve ever said.” They would leave together. Maybe a fresh start.