DriveChristopher X. Shade
He looked everywhere for her. In his ’73 Super Beetle, he drove to her parents’ big yellow house on Humboldt Street, jogged up the porch steps, knocked on the door, panted, waited—no answer. At the side of the house around back where the gravel drive led to the garage, he knocked on the privacy fence gate. The pool’s smell was in the air. It was a clean smell, a translucent smell, a clear sunlight smell on her wet skin and on her one-piece after swimming while she lay with her face to the sun in the tortoise shell sunglasses. Behind which he could not see, but he knew somehow that she pretended to have closed eyes when she was in fact regarding him through her lashes still moist, with tiny water beads. There was the sound of agitated bees in the air—it was the pool’s dragging pump.
He drove to her favorite place with trees, not Cheesman Park as one might guess—Cheesman was nearby, but a neighborhood away—instead, just north of busy 1st Avenue, her favorite place with trees was a nameless strip of green where neighborhood residents might walk after a meal, or take their dog. Grass and dandelions and other weeds had been thinned by joggers cutting through, by the rare family picnic blanket, by raucous children, by dogs jumping for thrown tennis balls and by lovers like him and her, holding hands, leaning with her back against an old oak so that he might kiss her, and then together sliding to sit in the shade on the fat roots and dirt and weeds to plan great and impossible things: She wanted to be a dancer. She thought she might paint. She would be a Lee Krasner in a wintry countryside cottage. She wanted to cure cancer. She was certain it was possible, anything was possible; it wasn’t at all like her father had told her, that she should finish at the university and probably meet someone there and, as a result, everything would get figured out—no, she would figure it out, she would not resign to the fate of a great passage of time. The time was now, more urgently than ever.
She would race cars. Those cars were cute, she was petite. She would easily fit inside.
Great people were waiting for her. When she arrived, they would know that she belonged, they would see at once that she’d always belonged.
He drove to her high school, Cherry Creek HS—he didn’t know why. There was no reason he could think of why she’d evacuate to such a place, but he was looking everywhere. He slid the Beetle to a halt and rushed the front doors—closed, locked, secured with a chain and padlock. At the football field, he climbed over the fence. Sprinklers in the grass hissed and ticked. He dodged spray as he hastily searched the bleachers, everywhere, imagining her there, so clearly, imagining her everywhere there, a younger her in oranges and browns and corduroy, but in fact she was not there, it was barren land. He’d never been with her there. She probably had no fond memories of the place. He climbed back over the fence, hurting his ankle in the jump down on the other side, and sped away in the Beetle.
At her church where he went with her on Sunday mornings, sometimes with her mother, less often with her father in tow—her church where he’d imagined one day they might be married, he got in front of two white-haired ladies kneeling in a pew. Neither of these were her and he lifted aside the curtain of the vacant confessional and he looked in at the sacristy, startled by a scarecrow of vestments. She had told him she would be adored. She would not be mean. She would be a church-going Christian. She would be familiar with the Bible and know more than the few verses she knew, like Isaiah 40:31, the one about flying eagles.
She would be someone who did not look back. She would be erudite. When she’d told him this, he had no idea what this word meant, and when he looked it up later he couldn’t find it, he couldn’t guess the spelling of the word, he had to give it up. She would learn languages. She would travel. She would see France, all the way to Cassis. Her grandmother had visited Cassis in 1978, and she had her grandmother’s Cassis map that had become delicate over the years of folding and unfolding. She’d pointed to things on the map: She would sunbathe on the Plage de la Grande Mer. She would dine in the old port on the Quai des Baux. She would visit the old church Saint Michel.
She would work in the movie industry. Her grandfather had told her so. Her grandfather had said he could tell, he said, there was something about the way she stood at a window. Even as young as she was, there was something about the way her eyes did not quite look at the same point in space, though they in fact did, but he said it struck him that hers were movie star eyes. These many years later she insisted she would be in movies. She would work magic on and off screen.
She had said she would be with him. She would always be with him. They would marry even if someone said they shouldn’t—but who would say they shouldn’t? Who might say she shouldn’t marry him? Her father who had asked him, Could he close a deal? Her sensible aunt Colleen? Her uncle Mike who had worked in Dustoff’s in Vietnam and who had asked him, What were his plans, What did he want to do really, and Why not finish at the university? Why not finish something?
She had told him they would make a future for themselves, a future brighter than anyone would expect, something to change the world. That’s how important it was for her to be with him.
He went to the Park Hill café where they’d gone together in the early days, to their usual outside table, a memory so vivid it seemed like yesterday. He got in front of two women sitting there—his heart pounding so hard he felt it in his head because he was startled by the image of her, but only an image, neither of these were her, she was not one of these. That first day here with her he’d been so flustered, so astonished to be in her presence, it seemed an undue privilege. He couldn’t talk, he couldn’t comprehend the menu. She had to order for him. She ordered him a sandwich and something else he discovered when it arrived to be an orange soda from overseas—it was clear, and it was cold and clean in his mouth and throat. When they were leaving the table, he put so much money down that she widened her eyes at him and then picked it all up, counted it, shaking her head, and then she said it was very kind of him but was it really necessary? She slid some of the bills across to him. Take it, she said when he didn’t move—because, in the state he was in, he didn’t have a grasp of what he’d done—and she said, You can’t afford to be so kind.
She’d said she spent most of her time listening to records and what she liked second-most was looking at album covers like Sonny & Cher’s Look At Us with those two in the crook of a tree that looked like it could’ve been a tree in Colorado, maybe up past Boulder, before there was so much snow, on the way to Estes Park, a tree alone on a farm somewhere. She said, That’s just where it might’ve been.
He went to the Sixth Avenue café where their usual table was inside at a window with a view of the changing leaves or the snow, and he walked, still limping, all through the place but she was not to be found there. He sat at their table where, one day in particular, they’d had hot tea and held hands across the table and then she’d asked him, Why were his hands always so cold? She withdrew her own hand. She told him to put his hands around the teacup like she did: elbows on the table, the cup in both hands, her eyes watching him over the brim. And so he picked up his teacup in both hands and put his elbows up on the table and looked at her. He asked, Now what?
Now, she said, come closer in your chair, now we wrap our legs together under the table.
As they did this, he nearly spilled his tea.
Careful, she said, Now let’s put our arms across. Put your tea on the other side of mine. Don’t spill it on me.
I haven’t yet.
There we are.
He asked, Now what?
She said, Now we sip the other person’s tea.
This is elaborate. Are you comfortable?
She said, Yes, I really am. Are you?
We’ve tied ourselves in a knot.
But the knot loosened over time, over days and weeks, in the gradual way that these things do, in moments of odd words and misunderstandings, and, then, in his shocking, dreadful error of causing a tear in the fold of her grandmother’s Cassis map. It was his pulling open the map the wrong way that had caused the tear. It made no sound when it tore, the only sound was her quiet moan, and then she grabbed the map from him. He was left with his hands in the air holding nothing. He said he was sorry, he didn’t know how it had happened, it had come apart in his hands. But she was so upset, she would not respond.
He suffered days apart from her and spent countless hours in the car, both hands on the wheel, trying to drive through new and different streets.
He asked her out again, and set out to entertain her. He made her laugh. He’d known that this would bring her back, and it had, but it hadn’t, not really.
At last, he turned the Beetle toward home. He returned it to the garage. He pulled the garage door up, drove in, and then pulled it down on his way back to the house. On the porch he knocked the dirt from his boots and went in the house. Just inside, he unlaced his boots, pulled them off and stood them on the mud rug as his wife Nora called it, or the ugly rug as she sometimes called it, or the washing machine rug because it could be found there when it was missing from the entryway. But it wasn’t missing. Everything was, after all, where it should be.
Nora called from the front room, “Where have you been, Maurice?”
He said, “I went for a drive.”
To The One Who Left
William Cullen Jr.
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