We stole a day. You and me, we made off like bandits with twenty-four hours, and we drove to the coast to enjoy them. We wandered through the bayberry and beach grass, across the dunes and along the shore alone, two small stones in the rushing air, eddies in the current where the wind could hide. Clouds raced west, over the wide ocean toward the land, spotlighting us in harsh sun, then darkness, then another bright patch moved across the water toward us.
We only had that day left, one glorious day and then one long night, and then I would go home and you would stay here, and there was that peculiar taut feeling of knowing the memory as you make it — lucid waking, you might call it, or just knowing you need something more to clutch through the remaining winter. So we trod soft and careful on the beach, dancers on a high wire, and I collected moments like other people snap shots, to selectively forget and remember as necessary. Maybe it sounds dumb but when you first kissed me in the cinderblock stairwell, years ago now, some piece of my world splintered and separated. After that nightand the nights that followed, there was no going back. I could only go forward, and for that I thought I needed you.
What we would remember: that it was January, and it was the north, and the minute I cracked the car door that raw hungry wind stole our warmth and our silence and tumbled us out onto the asphalt. The way you tried to tame your hair, blonde and tangling under brittle straw-colored fingers. The brushing of our hands and the proximity of our shoulders, no one there to witness, and that my banter was so good I kept you in conversation for a good five minutes at a time.
And the things we chose temporarily to forget: The length of the Midwest between your home and mine, mountains to the coast, the grasses and groves, the miles of plains those clouds would have to scud before they darkened my front door. What your mother thought when she pretended not to see me sneaking out of your room that morning, just hours earlier; the things you’d have to tell her if we wanted this to work. The way I panicked and left school and left you, too afraid to face the fact of our relationship: the cracks in your voice box, the frays in our telephonewires, the on and off years since the cinderblock kiss, the static in our airwaves that seemed to have come to stay. The man I kept in my bedroom to help me carry the radio silent nights without you, whose name you might or might not have known.
The call your therapist, thank god, answered: the ambulance, stomach pumping, hospital nights. Your voice, weeks later, confidential, flirtatious – I may or may not have taken a few shots before I called you – telling me what you’d done.
That if you had died, your family would not have known to call me. I would have found out on Facebook, along with your sixth-grade friends and awkward acquaintances the last to know, and I would not forgive you that. That the only reason I was here now was because you’d almost disappeared on me then. That there comes a time beyond which you can’t forgive, and that time had years ago passed with us, and even as we knew it, we didn’t want to so we walked together carefully, looking back over our shoulders. For the sake of this day, we chose to forget.
We walked close together, road-trip Red Vines still on our teeth, and I marked your inhales, your long pale feet placed precisely one in front of the other. It’s not that I thought we could work, I just didn’t want to think that we couldn’t, so I marked our footprints in the sand behind us, already pooling with water, because they proved your presence: the weight of your heels, the passing of your steps. And yet for all your presence, your Red Vine breath and your whipping hair like water, you still seemed halfway to disappearing – a trick of the light, I felt, and if I blinked too slowly I’d be standing empty-handed and alone.
Out on the water, just at the horizon line, I thought for a moment I saw distant mountains. An island? “Hey, look! Do you see that?”
I squinted harder but it was gone.
But this day, this was the day that would be different, because I was here to show you what to live for, and maybe it would be the beginning of something new.The sunset over the water to the west as we drove away was stunning – orange, and pink, and deep, deep violet and I made you pull over so we could watch it fade. And I know you don’t remember this part but I kid you not the contrails in the sky seemed – for a minute – to spell a giant OK suspended above us. So hungry I was for signs of comfort, I latched onto these contrails even as they dispersed.
“Look, they’re telling us we’ll be okay,” and you even gave me a brief smile in response. We drove away and that’s the moment I chose to remember. Not the rising tide and the traitor beach cleaned again, not your silence, not the layers and layers of transgressions we’d already traced across each other’s skin and never discussed. Just those contrails and something somewhere to hold onto that said you’d be okay, and I would be okay, and we’d be okay together.
It was eerie, the emptiness of an off-season beach town in the evening. There was only one girl, sleepy and sullen, at the greasy fish and chips stand where you said you weren’t hungry. The hotel charged us $30 for the room and in their abandoned lobby with the faux-marble floors they upgraded us to a suite for free.“Two twin beds,” they confirmed, and their voices echoed so loudly against their too-white walls that neither of us was brave enough to argue.
It was on the sixth floor, with a view of the water, but we weren’t here to luxuriate. This whole town had too much room for echoes, for stories and confessions to emerge to fill the silence and the stillness if you let them. We were just here to hunker down, away from the world, and search the wreckage for what could be salvaged.
So we moved carefully so as not to stir the shadows from the walls. We closed the cheap and heavy curtains and threw our bags on the beds and you turned on the TV. “Law & Order SVU” reruns, of course, because you always said that Detective Olivia Benson was implicitly supposed to be a lesbian and therefore we were both devoted fans. You used to call me Benson, remember? “Such a cool kid, Benson,” you’d say to me and laugh, that flick of your eyes sideways like you knew something and I didn’t.
I thought of reminding you but you’d already slipped a fifth of Jack from your backpack. I ran to buy icy cans of ginger ale from the vending machine down the hall, and we sipped our drinks from the little plastic hotel cups. Benson interrogated a sweating man and we sat close together on the couch, as close as I dared. You poured another drink, and time began to slow. The white walls faded and the beach and the ocean receded from the curtains, and I laid my head in your lap, and all of this felt inevitable, because both of us knew exactly what we were doing – we just needed to get drunk enough to get there. I watched you watch her, and I watched the muscles around your mouth clench and then soften, and finally, you leaned over and studied me. You met my eyes and there you were, so calm and so present for amoment, your eyes filling like footprints with water. You traced your fingers along my collarbone.
And you draped your blonde hair across my face and you kissed me.
This – now, this was the moment I would take home to remember. And if you forgot, I would remind you in the morning. And if there was something cheap about the whole thing, the TV still on and the polyester cushions and the whiskey taste in your mouth, the impersonal movement of your tongue against my teeth. I chose not to notice. This was not exactly what I’d dreamed of, your clothes still on and your hand stuffed down the waistband of my jeans with a forcefulness I didn’t recognize, but it was something.
Our clothes had gone somewhere and we were in one of the beds and it was just your beautiful body and mine flicking over each other like salmon schooling home. I felt numbed from the inside out, but your mouth nipped at my neck and miles of your skin unfurled beneath my hands. This was what we’d come for, so I threw myself into this moment desperately. I needed it to mean something, to be something, to say something about us. If not, why were we here? If there’s no island, then why swim? If no pearl, why dive?
Early in the morning I woke to the TV we’d left playing, the lights we’d left on. You were dozing, one hand wrapped tightly around my waist, and all your muscle tone had melted in the night. You were soft. Lovely, long lashes splayed below your eyes. I reached over and touched your face. “Don’t leave me,” I whispered. “Please don’t.”
You opened your eyes, surprisingly calm and still, and wriggled up next to me. You ran a thumb along my eyebrow.
“Just please don’t go anymore. I need you to stay.”
“I won’t,” you murmured back. “I could never actually leave you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” you drawled drowsily and draped your leg over mine. Pearls, islands – forget everything else, this was the moment to remember. I closed my eyes and fell asleep again. But did I dream, or was it real, that you whispered one last thing to me? And what was it?
“I love you more than I can stand,” I thought it was. But I couldn’t be sure.
And still, after all the years of evidence to the contrary, still I thought perhaps we could have something beautiful. That this was the beginning of something new, something good. Not that I had any evidence to stand on, but I believed it fervently, the way you have to believe what you can’t bear not to believe. Perhaps, when I woke again, I would open my eyes and there you’d be, still sleeping like an otter. I would wake you gently. Maybe we would slowly, calmly start to touch each other again. Maybe you’d look me in the eyes and say bashfully that you meant what you said, that you wanted to start a real life together, you’d just been so overcome with doubt and fear and were scared to show me how you really felt, but the one thing you knew was that you were in love with me and wanted to make this work. And I would forgive you, of course. We’d treat ourselves to an expensive breakfast, and walk the beach again, holding hands this time, then on the drive back you’d rest one hand on my thigh and the other lightly on the steering wheel, and laugh at how simple everything was, now, now that we were together, and why hadn’t we just done it years earlier? And you would apologize for being so distant and say you were working on it, you just had such a hard time being vulnerable, and I’d say of course, I’m here with you, I’ll stick by you. You’d call your mother and come out. I’d call my mother and come out. They’d be flabbergasted but we’d hang up on them and then we’d plan our future living together in Denver in an apartment with a golden retriever puppy and Audre Lorde quotes in your squiggly handwriting taped to the bathroom mirror and all the sex toys still scattered on our rumpled bed from the night before. You’d paint a mural of golden contrails across one wall, and I’d make squash soup on the stove and make a mess of the kitchen that you’d wipe up later rolling your eyes and grumbling while the puppy licked at your hands.
When I woke in the papery sheets I was alone. You were in the bathroom and I heard the splish of our unfinished whiskey drinks being tossed down the sink, the heavy plunk of the paper cups in the trash, and I knew at once, with a sinking feeling, that nothing had changed. I wrapped myself in a sheet and changed in the bathroom, and you started stuffing clothes into your bag.
“We should head out soon.”
We skipped breakfast. Outside, a front had moved in. The sky was grey and cloudy, and we shivered in the humid cold as we packed the car. You drove straight to the highway, silently, five miles per hour under the speed limit as always, and scanned the radio. Blue eyes, baby’s got blue eyes, Elton John sang. Like a deep blue sea on a blue blue day.
There would be no beautiful sunset today, no contrails, only a long drive and a half-hearted goodbye, a bus ride, an airport security line, a flight, then another late-night bus to my crappy apartment in Denver in the mid-winter snow, where that man, that good, kind man, would be waiting with no knowledge of where I’d been. I should have known by then that there would be no golden retriever puppy, no shared bathroom, no shared bed. Nothing; there would be nothing. And the falling from high hopes was worse than never hoping at all.
Baby’s got blue eyes, when the morning comes I’ll be far away. You must not have been paying attention, because you didn’t change it.
Was it always this way, both of us loving each other for what we were not? For the hopes of us, not the living breathing lives of us? For years the fact of us hovered on the horizon, we are not there but we might one day get to it, and the more we gave to that black hole of half-way hoping, the less we both became. The less we became, the more we had to love about what we weren’t. We never said we loved each other and I always told myself that was how we knew how seriously we both had fallen. But what if we never said it because you didn’t feel it, and I felt it too much? Because I would rather make up the story on my own than get the wrong answer?
I turned down Elton John.
“Hey, can I ask you something?”
“How do you feel about last night?”
“What do you mean, how do I feel about it?” You kept your eyes on the road.
“I just thought we should talk about it…right? I mean – I liked it, I’m glad it happened.”
Now you glanced at me. Your blue eyes were empty, dry, and far away. “Glad what happened?”
“We – well, you know, we kind of hooked up?”
“Really? You don’t remember anything?”
“Well hey, maybe we should try being sober for a change, huh?”
“Are you hung-over?”
“Me too…what do you say we stop and get a coffee?”
“Why not? Come on, it’ll be fun.”
“We’ll go to a drive-thru Starbucks next exit, ok?”
“Couldn’t we sit down and chat? It’ll be like a real coffee date – I could flirt with you!”
“Fuck, Olivia, I’m trying to drive. Can you just chill out for a second?” You turned up the music again. I think that your body is something that I understand, Ani DiFranco sang. I think that I am happy, I think–
“Fucking dyke music!” You barked and jammed the SCAN button with your finger. “Shut the fuck up, Ani DiFranco. Nobody’s happy.”
We rode in silence. The trees along the road were tall and spindly, almost black, leafless. Muted sunlight flashed through the breaks in their ranks as we sped past, and I sent part of me tromping through them towards that sunlight. How many days would it take me to walk home, if I didn’t stop? New Jersey to Colorado – how many days?
“Amy, I have to tell you, I think you’re drinking too much. A lot happened last night and it freaks me out you don’t remember.”
“You are unbelievable! You want to know why I drink so much? Because I’m the loser who dropped out of school because I was too sad. I have such good people who love me, and all I do is fail them, but honestly, you are not one of them.”
“What are you talking about? But what about – I thought we had something together.”
“We did! And then you left me, remember? You knew I was fragile. But you made me think you’d stay, and then you left. When do you think I started drinking? You have no idea what it’s like in my head, Olivia. No idea.”
“But that was five years ago! And I’ve been trying to come back to you ever since. Amy, I think I love you.”
“Don’t say that.”
“But it’s true, I really think I do-”
“You’re so full of shit! I know you’re dating a man, goddammit.”
“He’s not – we’re not dating, exactly –“
“Does he know that?”
“Well – it’s just complicated, you know?”
“I knew it. My mom was right. God, I thought maybe you’d changed.”
“Wait – your mom? She knows? Why didn’t you tell me?”
You laughed. It was harsh, awful. “You seriously think all of this is about coming out? I don’t know, maybe in your head this is just some tragic forbidden love story. But in reality, Olivia, you treat me like shit. You come into my life when you want to, for a week, or a day, and then you just leave again. I can’t do this with you anymore. I just can’t.”
You turned up the music once more, loud. “Mambo No. 5” – a little bit of Monica in my life – and it was so funny and awful that neither of us moved to change it. I watched your jaw muscles clench, and unclench. Your skeleton fingers were brittle and white around the steering wheel, and there was nothing I could say to you. All this time, I’d been the one too slippery to hold on to, too scared to make it work, and by now we weren’t much of anything, except reflections of what each of us once had wanted. We held nothing for each other, and as hungrily as we grasped, there was nothing we could give or take from each other, so I would let you go. I flexed my toes in one shoe, then the other. One, then the other. Without stopping, without eating or sleeping, I would walk west, through forests and groves, and miles and miles of plains. I would remember the contrails and the wind and the pooling of the sea in your footprints.
And as I walked I would call my mother, and tell her about you. I would call that poor man waiting for me, and tell him about you, and by the time my footstepsdarkened my front door, it would be mine and mine alone. Maybe I would meet a girl, wandering like me; maybe she would have hair like yours, but shorter, spiky. Maybe we would walk together. She would pick splinters out of my feet with tweezers when my shoes fell apart and buy me burgers at the diners we passed. “I hate the beach,” she’d say. “No way to pin down the water. Real life is way radder.”
At the airport you stared at the rear-view mirror while I grabbed my bags.
“Well, bye then.”
I stood at the curb as you pulled away, then I pulled out my phone. I had some calls to make. So that when my spiky-haired wandering girl came looking for me, I would ready and able to stay.
Vivian Underhill is a writer from Boulder, Colorado. By day, she works as a hydrologist, sampling stream water for trace metal contamination. By night, she writes all manner of things. Her work has been published in LIP Poetry Magazine, New West Magazine, The Colorado Daily, BitchMagazine.org, and Autostraddle.com.