The first thing I think of is I've taken a wrong turn,
headed left when I should've headed right, taken the south
freeway instead of the north. Prophetic, don't you think.
You probably weren't even half way up the stairs getting
back into the middle of your day, and I was instantly
The second thing I think of is my knee, my denim-covered,
ordinary knee against yours with its long scimitar scar,
under the table in the restaurant. I made X's with the
silverware and drank your ice water through your straw.
You asked the waitress if there was a word for the way
vinyl upholstery sticks to the backs of thighs.
Maybe 45 miles later when I am back on the right road,
I think of a third thing. Yes things are adding up. I
see you in your living room, lifting the gold lid to that
fancy box of chocolates and finding all the pieces with
a little corner missing, the imprint of where my mouth
was before I left you. You said I could do that. You said
if it wasn't what I was looking for — and I was looking
for the sweet tart taste of lemon — that I could put it
back. I kept tasting and returning. I liked pillaging
your chocolates with your say so.
It is the number of the next mile marker going by in my
side view mirror that reminds me. I need to do long division.
I need to carry the one. It's the only way I've ever been
able to get the right answer.
When you first opened the chocolates, you looked at all
the unmarred shapes in the box. Chocolate geometry. Glossy
and logical. You looked up at me with your sweet brown
eyes and said there are few angles here, what you see
is what you get, some dark, some light. I asked if I could
look at the second layer to find the exact one I wanted.
You looked amazed. A second layer? You said you would
have thrown out the box whenever you put your hand in
and it came back empty.
What were you thinking? Did the chocolates not seem awfully
high up to you? Think about it. How could there be nothing
underneath? You said when they're gone they're gone. I
told you think again, there's more where that came from.
Take some with you, you said.
I see you now, thinking about which ones are left, which
individual you want in your mouth. Choices don't trouble
you. You don't look back. Yet at this point there is no
way you can consume one of those chocolates without thinking
of me. I am all over them. They are expensive. Think of
Here comes the long bridge over the river. There is one
broad sign in the middle. It says Welcome on the one side
and Come Back Soon on the other. If I get out of my car
at the borderline and put one foot in your state and one
foot in mine I will feel exactly the way I do right now.
There is my one chocolate sitting on my passenger seat.
That is where I put it. It doesn't mean anything other
than that. You'd think it would've melted by now, hot
as it is in this car this time of day. It is beginning
to sweat. Chocolate sweat. How good that must be.
Caramel spills on the back of my ring as I lift a thin
strand of it to my mouth. It's been sealed in chocolate
confinement. One nibble starts the leak. A small puddle
of burnt sugar in my hand. Gossamer, translucent, diaphanous,
crystalline. These words make me want to murmur. Luscious.
Liquefy. I'll have to lick it off. If you were here you
would want to watch me do this. I've seen you. The look
on your face as I peel my thigh from the vinyl, the way
you hang back and watch me walk away.
I want this to take a long time. My tongue digs under the
edges of my ring long after the caramel is gone. A man
in a car next to me who is driving much faster than I
have ever dreamed of driving slows down and peers at me
with my fingers spread taut against my face. I wave and
smile at him and give him something to think about, ease
up on my gas pedal and watch him create sudden distance
without meaning to.
I don't like chocolate cake or chocolate ice cream. Hohos
you can keep. It's the absolute thing I want. Chocolate
in its pure form. The thing itself.
Just before I left you, I saw a pink thing on the sidewalk.
It tripped my eye. It could have been someone's piece
of saltwater taffy, spit out to dissolve in the rain.
But it was not. It was a tiny, very tiny baby bird, so
small it should still have been in an egg. The skin was
transparent, the head turned to the side, wing nubs bracing
the cement, blue-black bulges where there would have been
eyes. You didn't see it. When I mentioned it to you I
told you it was an omen. I took two steps forward. You
took one step back, your eyes scanning the sidewalk for
something you were never intended to notice. I pulled
you by your sleeve, away from this thing that had already
happened, that I could do nothing about.
I should've done something. I should've taken the edge
of the envelope of the card I gave you with the caption
that, ironically, is the thing we always say to each other,
and I should've lifted up the fetal bird, and removed
it to the grassy section of the boulevard where there
were blood-red tulips blooming. The things we think of
Like one time over lunch you told me your greatest fear
was to become paralyzed or lose your sight. I told you
I have no greatest fear. I have ransacked my brain to
think of one since then, and all that comes to me is a
hum, a kind of wordless harmony, the low-pitched tones
of serenity. Or denial, you'd say. Sometimes they feel
My watch fell off in your car. I'd wanted to say something
corny about wanting to stop time, but that's too obvious
and I wanted to say something about it being an omen,
but I already did that with the baby bird and I don't
want another omen. I just want you. So I reached for the
time that had fallen between us, and you said "What?"
because there was no way for me to avoid brushing my hair
on your arm on the way down to it, and I just said "My
watch fell off. Even the safety chain is undone." And
you looked at me straight-faced and said, "It's an omen."
Enough is enough. I am giving up on love. There is nothing
about this relationship I understand. Who are we again?
I need out of whatever this is. I swear eastern Montana
by nightfall is looking good to me. I no sooner decide
this, than my muffler falls off my car and drags itself,
bucking and sparking. I can feel the racket through the
floorboards. It sounds like a trawler. I am driving a
tuna boat and there is no ocean within a 1000 miles. I
can't even hear myself think. Clearly I have to do something,
but I have no jack. This strikes me as funny. I have no
Jack. I have to bend over from laughing.
Maybe it's the chocolate. I'm a junkie. You're my cocoa
bean. This may be the stupidest thing I've ever said.
This is so stupid I can't believe I just thought of it.
I must be no I can't be. I'm holding back too much to
be a goner. I pull myself together. You expect that of
me. You expect me to be smart.
I am standing on the shoulder of the highway, and I'm going
to have to slide under this car and fix something I know
nothing about. Well then. Here goes nothing.
The tail pipe is steaming. I stretch a bungee cord around
the whole mess. A regular do-it-herselfer. Then I merge
into traffic, my arm out the window, bracing itself against
the wind coming at me. I pretend I'm a back-up singer.
Stop in the name of love. It's only my concern for waking
strangers with a loud, unmuffled roar that keeps me from
breaking the speed limit. Otherwise I'd be out of here
in a heartbeat. Know that.
I want to go Alaska. I want to glissade on glaciers. I
want the Kodiak bears eating right out of my hand. I have
convinced you that I'm brave. I'm a regular Captain Courageous.
That'd be me. A 007 kinda babe. Give me something I can't
A car with too many children in it drives alongside me
for a while. The woman behind the wheel looks anemic.
She is gazing at the open road ahead of her like she is
seeing something else. More small heads than I can count
are watching one of those TV's that plugs into the cigarette
lighter. I'm thinking too bad the woman can't have a cigarette.
Maybe she's got a flask of apricot brandy in her pocket.
I nod my head and she gives me a slow-moving kind of smile
like she might.
Wile E. Coyote is chasing the roadrunner without the good
sense to give it up. He has just run off the edge of a
cliff and is hanging poised in mid-air in that abyss he
finds himself in time and time again. Beyond vulnerable.
He turns his head and looks at the viewers with familiar
shock. He knows he's in trouble.
This is the part where I always close my eyes. I know what
that free-falling is like. But this time I'm driving.
This makes shutting my eyes against the world something
of a problem. Imagine falling up instead of down, I think.
Imagine doing this with so much force that you leave a
hole in the ozone. Talk about vision. Talk about will.
Somehow I get off the freeway and find myself in a town
where the pavement gives way to gravel in a hurry. How
this happened, I couldn't tell you. There is a red fruit
stand set back from the road, its porch ashy with gravel
dust. Vertie's Vegetables and Eggs. I have an unexplained
hankering for those brown eggs. Not that I want to eat
them, I just want to see them in the carton, especially
if they still have bits of straw stuck to them. I just
want them in front of me. I want their warm, fresh fragility
in my hand.
The screen door resists me with its rebounding spring.
I pull harder to get in and it slaps shut behind me, pushes
me into the vague smell of raw potatoes, apple cider and
dirt. The thick scent of musk melon about to turn bad
hangs close to the ground. Help yourself, says the sign.
Potatoes .10 / lb. Eggs .75 Apples whatever you think.
Put your money on the table. In the box.
I am standing here completely alone, in some stranger's
abundance and I am breathing in the cool, dank smell of
earth. This is where you are not. You are nowhere nearby.
A wasp buzzes close to me. A car drives by with its kite-string
of dust behind it.
I cannot decide what apples are worth. I think of Eve,
the first woman, ever. She knew. I think of you.
I rub one against my jeans and eat it. I take my time.
I'm guessing Vertie would want me to know what I'm buying
into. Tastes good to me. In fact, I am doing that thing
where your mouth starts foaming when the rush of saliva
meets the tart flesh under the skin. I'm slobbering all
over myself. This is one hell of an apple. I gather all
the front of my shirt can carry and let them roll and
tumble onto the floor of my car. Then I leave Vertie an
indeterminate amount of cash. You make me feel generous.
I am not normally like this. Just so you know. I am stingy
with my heart. Nobody gets the whole thing. And I don't
like to pussyfoot. The shortest distance between two points
is always a straight line.
In about 30 miles there will be a scenic overlook. It's
a little out of the way but it's worth it because it's
nothing I ever expected. A valley in the middle of the
prairie. An inverted plateau. The first time I saw it,
after the first time I left you, there was dust in the
air, it was sunset. I had not planned to stop. I had no
idea that in the middle of a prairie I could drive up
to an edge like that and the world could simply fall away.
You should've been there. All that sudden space. The colors
so high, they took up altitude. Pink, peach, umber. I'd
never seen a sunset rise like that. Purple, mulberry,
mauve. It was huge; the horizon so wide there seemed no
point of attenuation.
I did the thing you showed me. Tactile imagery. Hold your
arm straight out in front of you with your thumb pointed
up. Close one eye. See how it seems you are touching what's
just behind it? Suspend disbelief. It doesn't get any
easier than this. Believe me; I touched the end of that
day this way. I touched as far as my eye could see.
You were folding laundry. You were out of breath. I was
out of the shower. We were out of time. You were patting
your dog Baby's mammoth head. Your dog who weighs more
than I do. Where's the ball? Where's the ball? You repeat
yourself when you talk to the dog, just like people do
when they talk to little babies. Maybe this is something
you haven't noticed. Go after it. Go after it, Baby. Oh
You've told me several times, but you always think it's
the first time, that Newfs are bred for their swimming
ability. I went to the library. They also have hip dysplasia.
And the affliction of unparalleled loyalty. There is every
likelihood that someday your dog will have trouble walking,
I want to tell you, as you are patting her head in that
tender way you have. Such adoration. Baby will never leave
you. Your hands love the dog. Your hands with the freckles
on them that once you let me connect with a permanent
marker. I made an abstract design. It looked like nothing
I'd ever seen before. I'd recognize it now. Anywhere.
We cut rhubarb out of your garden and ate some of the newest
stalks right then and there, puckering. I cut the red
juice of strawberries onto your white counter and showed
you how to make the crust and told you how to pat it into
the bottom and up the sides so that there's still enough
pastry left for the lid. We agreed on the tart-to-sweet
ratio of fruit to sugar. You liked my suggestion of a
little lemon zest. "Oooh wee," you said. This is not the
sort of pie that should be eaten hot, but it was so beautiful
when we pulled it out of the oven that we couldn't help
ourselves. And besides, I needed to get going. I cut through
the top, along the vents you had crafted to look like
an abstract angel.
Eve was thrown out of paradise for wanting to eat knowledge.
I was hungry for more than pie. I dug in. As soon as I
got the first piece out the guts flooded together, a scarlet
mess. I told you if we let it set, if we weren't so eager
to indulge ourselves, it would pull itself together and
congeal. Just like a real pie. Want a plate or a bowl,
I asked. Fork or spoon? A plate, you said, a spoon so
I can get it all, and give me lots of guts.
If you only knew. When we were finished you looked at me
expectantly. You raised your eyebrow as if there was something
on my mind and you could see it on my face. I was wondering
if maybe we should pretend we'd never met, but I didn't
say a word. I put my tongue on the plate. You followed.
I'm a little over halfway home when my car stereo eats
the tape you made me just before the chorus of one of
my favorite songs. I roll down the window and sing it
a cappella because I have to. I need to hear the whole
Let's go driving down the boulevard
Wake up some dogs to barking
In their sleepy backyards,
Let's make some noise
Let's let somebody know we've been here
Let's pretend that nothing changes
And there's nothing to fear.
Let's drive on.*
I drape my wrist over the top of the wheel. I can steer
with my knees, too, while applying hand lotion. How about
that? The wind is clamoring into me and licking my hair
all over my face. It's a wonder I can see at all. If you
were here you would want to reach over and pull the strands
away from my eyes. I used to walk backwards into the wind
sometimes because I knew it would lead you to touch me
this way. Then I would lose track of where you were in
It smells like rain coming. The kind of humidity that makes
the dust as fluffy as mohair. I feel close. If you were
here you would reach back over the front seat and roll
down every single window and the wind that started somewhere
in eastern Montana would have come all this way to be
swirling around us. You would lean one arm along my headrest
and hold my hair back with both hands. Let's go driving.
My hair is even longer now. There is more to hold back.
I am a good driver. Normally safe, but aggressive. You
like that about me. Still, I nearly lose control just
now. I am looking at the remote keyless entry thing swinging
from the ignition. It looks like a flat black lozenge.
Or a square of unsweetened chocolate. I turn my head sideways
to read the little buttons and it seems strange that my
only choices on it are Lock, Unlock and Panic. I am going
too fast and suddenly I am in the middle of a curve with
at least two wheels airborne. My knees lock, my mind lets
go. I can't handle this, I think, this is it. I will rise
up over the cement barricades, flip over, and land on
my head. My bones will splinter and shard like really
good glass. The car will crumple. Everything will be crushed
and that will be the end of that.
But this is not what happens. I bring it back down. I'm
still here. What's up with that?
It is getting on toward dark. I like saying that. It is
getting on toward dark. You have no doubt taken Baby to
that place by the river. Baby loves the water. Sometimes
when I am in the tub, Baby sits beside me, watchful. She
laps at the edge or plunges her enormous paws in and displaces
the water with her mass. I wonder if Baby misses me. I
used to tease her when she'd come to me with her leash
and whine. You big Baby, I'd say. Come here, baby.
I am very close to home. My backyard neighbor Fiona set
her coffee mug on the fence yesterday morning before I
left. I can see from this distance that it is still there.
This is her signal. Good fences make good neighbors; this
is the only line I remember from "Mending Wall."
Tomorrow I will lean over the fence and talk with her.
Fiona is someone to count on. She will have something
she just baked she wants me to try. She will ply me with
rhubarb. She will ask after you. She will lean on her
side of the fence where the ledge is and she will say,
"Well?" I will hook my armpit between the pickets and
rub the body oils from my fingertips into the rough spots
in the wood. I will think of how to answer her this time.
Tonight you will be in your house and I will be in mine.
You will be eating the bread I made for you. I see you
holding what I kneaded in your hand, re-warmed in your
oven and bound for your mouth. I see you unwinding the
twisted rolls that I pulled tight around my fingers before
letting them rest a second time. Or a third. I forget
which. For you.
I will think of how the dough rose on the counter, swollen
in my favorite bread bowl, growing, taking up more and
more space all by itself. It rose so well I swear I could
see it inch toward the rim. I wonder about this kind of
chemistry. The dormancy of a living thing. The house smelled
fragrant with wheat and warmth. The difference between
a place to live and a home. And in all the years I've
been making bread, I've only recently learned that if
I make a small, deep slash in the center of the roll it'll
turn itself inside out just to bloom in the sudden heat
of my oven. So I did that this time.
Yet I wonder how long it'll take you to forget me. If you
are at the point already where you can go a whole day
without the mention of my name to anybody. Then there's
me. I find reasons to work your name into mindless conversations.
The teenage girl with the pierced eyebrow who works the
produce section at the grocery store now knows you have
never eaten guavas. Or Yukon gold potatoes. And that I
want to teach you the one way to peel a mango. She raises
her eyebrow at me. She is guessing. She is not wrong.
My widowed neighbor Ivy has a t-shirt that says, If I could
remember your name I'd ask you where I left my keys. I
cannot forget your name. I never lose my keys. They unlock
everything. Yet you are so well-guarded I lose you every
time I drive away. I think your exact words were, "This
distance between us seems cruel."
I said, "You mean when we are apart or when we are together?"
I have all sorts of things I want to tell you. My tongue
is tied up. This is not one of them. She sells sea shells
by the seashore. Rubber baby buggy bumpers. The black
bug bled blue blood.
It won't always be this way, but this is all I have for
now. Everything else is in a vault somewhere in my head.
For safe-keeping. Still I know it's yours for the asking,
for a song, even. But you don't ask. You simply wait for
me to keep coming back. The way you wait for the right
song to come on the radio. As if it's just supposed to
know to come on. You never call it in. You don't ask.
And if you get to where you're going right when something
good is coming on, you turn off the car because you're
there. I don't understand that.
I want to be home. Somewhere. I want to sleep in my bed.
I want to spoon with you. Connect the dots again. The
very idea. Think of the chances of anyone connecting.
Slim. Think of the chances that it'll actually matter.
See you next week.
* from "Let's Drive On (Jackie Says)" on BeJae Fleming's cd Red Cross Woman, Trailer Records, 1996.