There’s something methodical about the way you parallel park the red truck with an eighteen-foot boat attached. You move back and forth across the dirt with perfection alongside a mammoth Ponderosa Pine. I keep my distance, watch you inch forward one more time, and then straighten the wheel. Too impatient for this back and forth process, I wait outside the truck.
I admire your quiet patience and your large tan hands and how they can grip the steering wheel with such trained accuracy. You’re a captain at his helm. With my arms crossed at my chest I can sense that my face looks angry, for no reason. But, I’m not angry, instead, a sweet admiration begins to wash over me, and yet, always from afar, I’m simply there as the safety found when one is the observer. I’m shifting my focus and the way you’re looking at me from beneath the bill of your baseball cap, and even at this distance, I know your eyes have already deepened into an indigo blue, the way the sky becomes saturated as it begins to fold itself into evening. I know your eyelashes have begun to curl from a day of swimming and sweating on the lake. And now, I’m wondering what you see when you look at me, and how I must appear to you through the windshield: a girl standing in a white skirt and flip-flops, and her hair a lake-tangled mess. I can almost taste the salt on your skin. However, I cannot change what you see when you look at me, this is part of our unspoken agreement, and will become the biggest part of our companionship of silence.
As the years passed, we don’t always have to speak to one another to communicate. We learn to make love and fight—all in a single glance. Right now, I see you under the light of the man that you are: strong and focused, even with the contradictions you live with, your silent dilemmas, of being with a woman who you’re not in love with. I’ve become a companion and take care of you in ways you’ve come to rely on. I learn to love a man who finds purpose in life by measuring and documenting the rainfall, knowing by the total amounts what the first days of summer will look like on the lake, whether it will be a good year for boating and how full the surrounding lakes will or will not be. Come spring, I will observe how you rally towards the “unofficial competitions” between you and your neighbor as to who will do a better job at mowing their half-acre of property, and I will learn to watch you from the kitchen window, stealing glimpses of what it must feel like to be a wife. I stare at my left hand, gloved in suds, knowing I’m not even wearing a promise ring. You tell me you love me, and I believe it. And I struggle with my own competitions, isn’t that enough?
Anything important bears a critical distance. You lock the truck and walk around the back of the boat, poking your head between the boat and the tree. You make your way to me. Hand-in-hand, we walk up the hill in the dark to the lakefront restaurant to order our favorite burgers. I don’t like red meat, but I make you uncomfortable when I have too many questions for the waitress about the menu. Tonight, I’ll keep things simple and say, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
These are the memories, the pauses; I take in our relationship that will eventually become ingrained in me, not so much about what our conversations were as we ate our burgers at the counter, in fact, I can’t seem to recall a single subject. Sometimes, I think about how, when we first met, our dinners became disregarded, and how, two grown people could become so content to nibble—the light from the refrigerator illuminating our naked bodies. And I think of the shadows that followed and dancing with us all the way down the long hallway back to the bedroom. It’s interesting how our new love at the time must have appeared to the other rooms, the forgotten ones, still much alive in the house.
Food was always a subject with us. When we first started dating, you used to take pictures of the meals I made for you: roasted chicken and potatoes, with the smell of fresh thyme traveling from the kitchen. The thyme came from a garden measuring about seven feet across that only grew thyme. It was those five years, three of which I lived in the house with you, that I remember the aromatic waves finding its way into almost every dish we made for one another. But, eventually, we began to fight over food. You tried to convince me it was healthy to skip meals. I explained that the dietitian at the university told me that when people fast the body stores its next meal into fat. Not knowing who was right, we both finally gave up. Eventually, I learned how to open the cupboard and without making a noise, sneak almonds from the bag. It would only be a matter of time before I could fool you as to why I was not so hungry at the table, hoping you didn’t notice any missing almonds from the bag. Today, I wonder if the Mormon woman you married, after a few dates, and only weeks after we broke up, uses fresh thyme when she cooks? Do you photograph her dinners, too? Does she go boating with you, like we used to? I’ll never forget how you announced to me that you were marrying her in an email. I never replied. After five years with you, and never being proposed to, what could I say? Glad you like my new apartment. Thanks for understanding that I just want to come “home,” and resume our life, together, back at your house. Dinner was great with you last week, I thought we were trying to work it out, but I’m happy your random blind date went well and now you’re getting married. A year into your marriage with the Mormon woman, I heard from mutual friends you were selling the boat. Part of me was relieved. That was our boat. Those were our memories. It would be those memories that haunt me for five more years into solitude. An undeniable resistance in forgiving myself for breaking up with you, and moving out of the house, would shroud me. Even after I moved, we tried to make the relationship work. I dragged you back, and then released you, over and over, until I was convinced I could not be content in this relationship, and I knew I was only further suffocating the truth. Perhaps, it would have been easier to lose you, if you had cheated on me, or left me for the Mormon woman, but it didn’t happen that way. The face of loss gripped my insides, and anger raged at my inability to be content; I had no choice but to flee. Forgive me. Forgive you.
* * *
Life always moves slower after a burger. We take our time going home, accepting the silence in the cab of the truck. It seems dark inside, like the house we’re coming home to. Sometimes when we do speak on the way home, our conversations include what it must be like to live on the lake. You talk about selling your house. I wait for you to ask me what I think. I want to support you, but I’m still young and selfish and you can tell that I haven’t a clue about real estate. I smile and say, “That would be great.” When really I’m thinking about how we’ve been together for five years, and I’ve never even asked you for a ring. It seems forced. I remember once at Sam’s Club I asked you to look at a diamond ring in the jewelry case, but you waved your arms in your yellow plastic sailor parka and said, “We didn’t come to Sam’s to look at rings!” People stare at me. Embarrassed, I lose myself, it’s as if I feel a crack running through the center of my chest—all over a ring in the shape of a flower, its petals saying, sorry, to me. It wasn’t even an engagement ring. Where did you go? I find you, perplexed over what brand of paper towels to buy. You put a twenty-pound bag of rice in the cart and tell me we’re going to make more meals with rice. I nod in agreement. Rice is high in calories, but I say nothing. The bag of rice is too big to fit in the fridge and I know it will be a matter of time before little worms hatch in the rice you’ll put on the floor of the pantry. I say nothing about that, too. I’ll have to hand-inspect every serving of uncooked rice meticulously in the strainer over the sink before I know I can cook it. Your rash decision becomes part of another adaptation to my personality with learning to over cleanse rice, one grain at a time.
* * *
I tell you I’ve had too much Diet Coke at the restaurant. You know by this statement that I already have to use the bathroom. You pick up speed with the truck and the boat seems frantic as it bounces over the road. It’s all business now. Our dreams of living at the lake blur past us as we talk about what we still need to do to get ready for Monday. We’re almost home. We’re on the last stretch of the highway now, traveling, like so many times before, and making a gradual climb towards the southern Yosemite foothills. The wind outside my window is warm. I extend my arm out; I’m flying, flying away towards something that I don’t have the words for. I sense you’re looking at me. I pin my soul to the skyline, my whole body feels as if it’s running alongside the truck and I’m no longer with you, and then your hand reaches for mine. We hold hands for the last twenty minutes home. I can tell by the strength in the way you hold my hand that I will sleep soundly in your arms tonight. The smell of Irish Spring from the shower you’ll take when we get home will still be sticky sweet when you climb into bed. I imagine my head buried into your chest, my cheekbones pressing out the stray water droplets. Exhausted, we will interlock and speak using only our feet.
Pilar Graham is a poet, essayist, and creative nonfiction writer. Pilar’s poems have appeared in Mutant Mule Review: Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, In the Grove, and San Joaquin Review, and her creative nonfiction in Poetry Midwest. Pilar has served as a poetry judge, and as a literary editor for several traditional and online journals.