by AJ Aronstein, recommended by Electric Literature
EDITOR’S NOTE by Halimah Marcus
In A-J Aronstein’s “Flower Box,” David, our incapacitated protagonist, suffers from mysterious fainting spells. He has shut himself in his apartment to escape the heat, the neighborhood crime, and the risks and inconveniences of everyday life. For David, nothing really occurs except for the weather: “Heat became its own event.”
There’s something classic about a story that takes place over a course of a summer. The rising heat of June, the peak in July, and the August decline, which Aronstein describes as, “The summer getting older, stretching out toward the long autumn and the fluish winter.” Many a film and novel follow this structure, reaching their crescendos at the peak of a heat wave. The Great Gatsby and Do the Right Thing come first to mind, both dealing, as this story does, with class and the urban pressure cooker that is the summertime.
Summers, more than any other season, are self-contained times of transition. In The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers explains it this way: “And the season of dog days is like this: it is the time at the end of the summer when as a rule nothing can happen — but if a change does come about, that change remains until the dog days are over. Things that are done are not undone and a mistake once made is not corrected.” If summer is the time of year when progress and stagnation are most at odds, it is no wonder it is a season beloved by storytellers, the chroniclers of hard-earned change.
In “Flower Box,” tensions come to a boil when David attends a party thrown by a friend of his ex. For the first time in months, he ventures past the police checkpoints that surround his neighborhood to a “hermetic, sealed-off” apartment where, “People nodded in a way that suggested something other than agreement.” Here, the mistakes of David’s past do not escape memory or judgment and the reader begins to lose faith in the promise that fall will bring relief.
Summer aside, it is fitting for “Flower Box” to be published on New Years day. For David, resolutions — to get healthy, to return to work, to win back his girlfriend — are even more freighted for failure than the contracts we make with ourselves every December. Resolutions are too ambitious, but what David is able to achieve, over the course of sweat-stained, isolated dog days, is resolve.
Co-Editor, Electric Literature
by AJ Aronstein, recommended by Electric Literature
My block got quieter as the days grew longer and hotter. I stayed inside to avoid the sun. Curtains of humidity wrapped around the trees, muting and morphing the street noise. Filling my ears with wet-cotton summer air. In the early afternoons, thunder rumbled north and west, the dead sounds held close to the earth, bouncing off the Capitol Building and the marble monuments downtown. I felt tight and on the verge of something. As if huddled on some high plain, surrounded by the sound of distantly beating drums, telling myself, “Well, this is it.”
I lived alone on the corner of Seventh and Maryland in Northeast DC. On the north end of the block there was an enormous Victorian house with a wide porch bordered by white latticework. The house had been under renovation, but the owner must have given up when the real estate market collapsed. From my front window, I counted forty people living in it, or at least moving in and out of it. In the breezy afternoons at the beginning of the summer, they all spilled into the vacant lot next door to shoot dice. But toward June, the heat kept mostly everyone inside. The block was almost entirely dead during the day, and nothing happened for a while. Heat became its own event.
The hot weather made me anxious, and severe anxiety made me black out. It’s why I wasn’t working that summer. It’s what I was trying to deal with. About a week after graduation, I was walking down East Capitol with Laura, holding her hand. I had a headache, but didn’t say anything — I didn’t want to seem like I wasn’t enjoying myself.
Then I was on the concrete, staring up at a tuft of cloud over the Capitol.
Blacking out, on its own, didn’t hurt. Waking up, though. That was the worst. I’d open my eyes and find myself on the carpeted floor of the Red Line train, squinting commuters standing over me with these stupid looks of consternation and fascination. Blinking at me in a little circle of faces.
At home, Laura would drag me onto the couch. She wasn’t strong enough to lift me up the stairs into bed. She’d find me on the bathroom floor with my hand reaching out, as if I’d tried to grab something on the way down. She’d find me stretched out across the coffee table, legs splayed, a broken mug on the floor.
I had other problems, too, and as the months stretched and the variously prescribed solutions didn’t work, they also got worse. Laura left DC after a bad fight. She came back for her stuff at some point.
My medical leave ballooned into an extended absence. A few weeks after I stopped getting emails from the office, things got really bad in the neighborhood. A high school student was killed on his way home from the Community Center on G Street. Two classmates wrenched him off his bike, held him to the ground, and beat him to death with some planks. Police found the planks in a dumpster on Twelfth, sticky with drying blood.
I watched footage of the attack on YouTube in the dark: a cell phone video of skinny arms lifting the wood and bringing it down on what looked like a pile of clothing. You could hear the sound of the wood thumping bone. Over and over again. A tinny voice shouted zoom in, zoom in on the motherfucker. I watched it ten or twelve times one night, I couldn’t stop, eating Wheat Thins in my underwear with a bag of frozen peas in my lap. I had a horrible headache and the video seemed to dull the pain, or at least distract me from it.
Later, I lay awake with the windows open and the fan running on high, thinking about Laura — about the feeling of not having her body next to mine — and watched as passing cop cars threw weird colors and shadows on my ceiling. A loose bearing in the fan made a grinding noise. I wondered if maybe it would fall off the ceiling and kill me in my sleep. But it seemed too complicated to fix.
Enough time passed that eventually I stopped noticing it.
In July, after a couple of home invasions, the police set up checkpoints in the neighborhood and made pedestrians show identification to get into certain areas. You could only move around Trinidad and Capitol Hill North if you were going to church or lived within the ten square blocks marked off by police tape.
I didn’t mind. I was staying inside anyway. I blacked out walking through the living room. I got a Twitter account and used it once: Keeping inside today #inside #DC. I decided to bide my time until things improved. Till then, I would monitor my own progress. Watch out for myself. I stopped taking any of the pills. I ignored phone calls from friends long enough that they started to dissipate, but I tracked their summers on Facebook. I got e-vites to going-away parties (the exodus before the election already underway) and pool parties on rooftops. I got one invitation to an August birthday party at Laura’s friend Angie’s apartment, even though it had been awhile since I’d heard from her. I wrote the time and date on a pink post-it note. It seemed far enough in the future to be unthreatening.
Two times I woke up on the kitchen floor, bathed in the soft electric glow of the refrigerator light, sweating coldly. Eventually the Facebook messages stopped coming.
I didn’t charge my cell phone. The battery died and I put the phone in the freezer, standing for thirty seconds in the cloud of vapor that spilled out.
Still, I was thinking about starting a lot of things. I read the first twenty pages of about ten different novels, some of which Laura had forgotten when she left. I sat shirtless in the living room with a box fan blowing across my chest. I read the news, keeping one tab in my browser open to the crime blotter, and another to Laura’s Facebook profile. I looked at pictures of her from a year ago, from two years ago. And then I looked at pictures from before we met, trying to find some evidence of the inevitability of our eventual intersection. Could you track this kind of gravitational pull? I waited for updates. I started emails that I never finished. I left the address fields blank. Emails about the crime and the heat. Emails about the headaches. I spilled the contents of my closet onto the floor and separated clothes into piles of things that I wanted and things that I didn’t want. I searched my clothes for remnants of Laura’s smell, strands of her hair, some physical index of her. I took the first steps toward reorganizing my kitchen, taking plates and bowls out of my cupboards and leaving them on the counter. I couldn’t find any of her tea glasses, her cookie plates. She had left her steak knives but took the baroque silverware that I had fought with her about when she got her stuff.
I didn’t leave the house for about a month. I ordered groceries online once a week, locked the door, and hid upstairs in my room when the deliveryman was scheduled to come. I left a post-it note on the door: Please leave groceries here, DL.
Laura always loved to walk around supermarkets and pick out cereal and jars of tomatoes. She enjoyed the smell of the produce and the sound of the plastic bags when you snapped them open. I preferred checking boxes on the screen. I preferred selecting my delivery time in advance, craving this extra level of mediation. I selected bananas and frozen hamburgers. I paid with a credit card attached to my parents’ account.
One Friday in late July, while retrieving my groceries from the porch, I noticed the flower box in front of my house. It had been there all along, of course. A small patch of dirt. Every house has one in certain neighborhoods in DC. The city used to fill them with fresh topsoil every spring. I don’t know if they still bothered filling them in wealthier areas, but on my block at least, the flower boxes had turned into dusty pits of garbage and weeds. I put down the groceries and walked toward the curb. The screen door slammed behind me. Looking down the block, I saw the yellow grocery van, but couldn’t hear it. The block was silent. Everyone was inside, hiding from the midday sun. I leaned against the ginkgo tree in the center of the flower box, trying to find some relief in the shade.
I looked down. Garbage poked from under the knotted weeds, which in turn wrapped around the tree. I kicked around at the garbage and then knelt down. I started tugging at some of the dried grasses. They came up easily and loosened the dusty soil, but I couldn’t get at their roots, which snapped off when I tugged. I started brushing away the dirt and piling up some of the loose trash. I got on my hands and dug around some more, pulling up more weeds and throwing garbage off to the side. I scratched at the earth faster, carving up little channels. The weeds went deeper than I had thought, and I kept digging and digging in one spot, determined to get to the base of the roots. I wrapped four or five strands around my fist and tugged at them. The root finally came out of the ground, and it had a spongy white thickness to it, like something you’d expect to find at the seashore. I dug my fingers into the soil and found that the earth just a few inches below the surface was cool and damp. When I looked up I noticed that a few of the guys at the end of the block had been watching me from the porch of the Victorian house. They looked at me with their arms crossed across bare chests, their white t-shirts rapped around their necks. I waved, without thinking. Dirt covered my forearms and I wondered what I looked like to them.
I dumped the trash and the weeds and went into the darkened apartment to put away the groceries. When I opened the freezer, I saw my phone sitting in there. It seemed like a frozen relic — something placed there by someone else specifically for me. I took it out and found my charger and plugged it back in. After a few seconds of holding it in my hand, the phone beeped and a battery indicator started blinking. I drank water from the tap and thought about Laura and then took a cold shower and stared in the mirror and lay in bed naked, feeling the breeze from the ceiling fan wash over my body. The smell of old soil hung in my nostrils and after working in the sun and the shower, my room seemed almost cold and I felt no pain.
The next day, I woke up as the sun started to spill in my bay window. I lay in bed staring at the fan for a long time, making plans for the flower box. Lists of things that I needed to buy: soil, new gloves, books on gardening. I thought of designs for a brick border. Around ten, I put on the same pair of shorts I’d worn the previous day. I went out behind the house and picked out a rusty hoe in the small pile of aging gardening tools left back there by the landlord. I went to the front and sliced deeper into the ground. I dug up rocks, a Ziploc bag, a few small lengths of knotted twine. I dug up shards of glass from old beer bottles and scraps of yellowed Post articles. I dug up a torn condom wrapper, an empty pack of Newport Lights and a metallic joint that looked in some way automotive. Though the box was only ten feet by three feet, it kept yielding artifacts. I felt like an urban archeologist. An archivist. And yet at the same time it felt like I was erasing evidence from a crime scene. Clearing the way. Making the ground bend to the prospect of new possibilities.
In the afternoon, I showered again and put on a t-shirt and jeans. I looked down at my phone, which was now fully charged. I turned it on and found that in five weeks I’d only received three voicemails. Two were from my mother, whose voice was so distant and small I deleted both messages without listening to them, out of fear that they would destroy my positive mood. The third message was from Angie, just a few days before. She was checking in, worried that no one had heard from me, and wanted to remind me about her party. I looked around my room for the pink post-it note with the details on it. The party was that night.
The thought of going all the way out to Northern Virginia — when I hadn’t left the block in months — brought on a kind of low-grade anxiety. I hadn’t seen Angie in close to a year. But maybe Angie would have heard from her. And the flower box was happening now, I was gardening, something functioning people did, and I wanted to tell someone about it.
Even in a limited amount of clothing, I started to sweat almost immediately. The jeans felt like wet wool on my legs and the t-shirt clung. When I looked in the mirror I realized I had gotten some color. My forearms were browning after only two days of work, and my skinny biceps looked a bit red. I stared at myself in the mirror for a minute, not breaking eye contact, and watched my face for signs of wounds, breakages, gulfs. I looked for gaping pores, acid spilling out, some sign of interior rot that had accumulated in the weeks of isolation. Nothing immediately evident. I stared. Everything seemed normal. I had a small headache, but nothing out of the ordinary. I pulled the post-it note off the wall and walked out the door.
I took the bus to MacPherson Square and then the Orange Line Metro all the way out to Ballston. I don’t think I made eye contact with anyone and tapped my foot on the train. The rhythm helped. I bought a bottle of sauvignon blanc at a Whole Foods and walked out of the store as quickly as I possibly could, and found Angie’s place off Wilson Boulevard.
It was still very early, so I went into a restaurant on the corner and sat down at the bar and ordered a Coke. It made me feel good to think about myself, and how well my new project was going. How it helped to be focused. How I didn’t lose track of myself at all during the last two days, and thought of Laura only in productive ways. This sense of progress ballooned into a more general, amorphously positive sensation. The headaches had been excruciating at times in the past few weeks, but the pain wasn’t making me any more anxious, and I thought how that was a good thing. How I hadn’t lapsed in almost four days. Hadn’t found myself sprawled out on the bathroom floor with the lights off or in the kitchen staring into the oven. I could remember most things clearly and sharply, even despite the heat.
It was so good to feel healthy and productive that I ordered a glass of bourbon on ice. I couldn’t remember the last time that I’d had anything alcoholic to drink. I took it down pretty quick, and ordered another. I started thinking about the last time I saw Laura — with Angie.
That was a tough day.
A very tough day.
I put my head on the bar, suddenly overcome by a headache.
“Do you want anything else sir?” said the bartender. I picked up my head.
“Just a check.”
“You’ve been nursing that for a long time.”
I didn’t say anything, but noticed my hand shook a little when I leaned back and swallowed the rest of the drink.
Angie’s apartment was in a tall sleek building with a doorman, marble floors, and leather couches in the lobby. I had to sign a guest book at the front desk. The air-conditioning made it like the inside of my refrigerator, but I noticed I was still sweating through my t-shirt. The headache had been pushed to the back of my attention, separated from conscious thought, although still present in a different form. A soggy feeling took its place above my left eye. I went up in the elevator and knocked on Angie’s door, but no one answered. I heard party noises, so I just pushed my way inside and found everyone sitting in a circle around the coffee table in the living room.
I seemed very late.
“That’s disgusting,” someone was saying, and the whole room exploded into laughter.
People looked up and I waved and held up the bottle of wine. Angie came over to greet me.
“Oh my God, David?”
She had been smiling as she walked toward me. But then she took a step back and looked at my face. She reached out and grabbed my right forearm. She turned it, the pale side up.
“Jesus, are you okay?” she asked. “You’re all cut up.”
I looked at my forearm and realized that there were deep bright red lines across it. They looked new, tightly packed together about midway between my elbow and wrist, but the bourbon rounded off any concern that I might have had. I shrugged. “Gardening,” I said to Angie, wiping sweat from my forehead. “I got you this wine.”
“Okay,” she said. “Did you stop somewhere else?”
I couldn’t interpret her expression.
“Yes,” I said.
Angie didn’t say anything, so I said: “Who are your friends?”
“David, are you sure you’re okay? Do you want a paper towel or something to clean those?”
“It’s fine, Angie,” I said. “It’s totally one hundred thousand percent awesome and fine.” I licked my finger and rubbed it over the red lines.
I walked in front of her into the living room. A few heads turned to look up at me. Someone coughed.
“Everyone, this is David,” Angie said.
“We know,” said someone.
There was guacamole and chips. There was high-quality sound coming from an iPod dock that sat on the kitchen bar. Someone leaned toward the table to grab a few chips and spilled a little of his drink on the carpeting.
“Where you coming from?” someone asked.
“Capitol Hill,” I said.
There were silent nods.
“Over in Northeast.”
Freezing cold. I crossed my arms. “It’s great,” I said. “Up-and-coming.”
Two girls made room for me on one of the couches and I sat down between them. I looked around the room. Sitting did something to me. Things started to feel a little fuzzy around the edges and there was suddenly pain in my arm, which was surprising and made me feel anxious. I also realized I was not just tipsy or mellowed by the bourbon, but actually drunk.
“David can you have wine?” Angie asked. I think I knew what she was implying.
“I’ll have some water,” I said. I heard her walk toward the kitchen. The effort to talk to these people was already exhausting me. My throat burned.
“Do you have to show ID to get home? I hear they set up some kind of police checkpoints,” someone said.
People laughed around the room. I’d just arrived and was being attacked and had no time to think of what I wanted to say. And there was now the confusing issue of these cuts to contend with, and the fact that I couldn’t be absolutely sure how I’d gotten them, and the realization that I’d been drinking and shouldn’t have been.
I leaned forward and scooped one of the chips into the guacamole. But the chip broke in half. I reached in the bowl and tried to dig it out, but I felt clumsy and sweaty and my fingers proved to be more than a little unsteady. I ended up shoving half of my index finger into the guacamole. When I extracted it, the finger was covered in bits of neon-green avocado and some red onion.
“The checkpoints are gone,” I lied. No napkins. “And they were mostly north of me.”
“Oh that’s good. It sounds like a total warzone down there.”
Things came back into sharp focus, and I noticed that the guy talking to me had a relentlessly bright smile. He looked familiar.
“It’s not,” I said.
“How do you get home at night?” said the smile. He was wearing a plaid shirt that fit tightly around his biceps. He was not sweating. “Do you take cabs?”
I licked my finger some more and wiped some sweat from my forehead.
“No,” I said. “There’s a bus.”
“Oh that’s convenient.”
“Yeah.” I said.
“A bus is great.”
Someone stood up and changed the music. I stared at the smile. Big horse-teeth. Very bright. I couldn’t make out what he was trying to say to me, and I couldn’t decide how I knew him. I was getting worried. The worry wrapped itself around me and I felt more eyes looking at me from around the table. The headache started to bang through again. This is why I stayed at home, I remembered. This was a feeling that I remembered having very often in the presence of others.
“David is taking some time off of work,” I heard Angie say.
She sounded far off, like she was making excuses for me, and handed me a glass.
I took a long sip of the freezing cold water. I leaned back into the couch and looked across at the smile, which was useful because it gave me something to hold onto — some way of staying in the present moment.
“I’m fixing up a flower box, too,” I said. “One of those old flower boxes. In front of my house.”
People nodded in a way that suggested something other than agreement.
Then the conversation moved away from me. It bounced around. They were talking about their exercise plans. How to avoid the heat but still get a workout. Gym memberships at Washington Sports Club. The advantages of running indoors. People with their air conditioning and their gym memberships and their marble lobbies and their guest books. Laura used to say that these high-rise apartments gave her a dark feeling, and that she felt bad for Angie and other people who lived in them. And she was right, I thought. If they just thought for one second about a different kind of living that was more urban and plugged into the fabric of a neighborhood. If they just for one second thought about how this city works, and what it meant to be really alone in it. To lose everything you thought was important; to feel as though your grip on the world was loosening. As though the white spongy roots connecting you to the earth are always fraying. And to be surrounded by kids who beat the life out of each other with planks — people murdered as a matter of ordinary life.
Or to lock yourself up for weeks and wonder if anyone would find you if you blacked out and hit your temple just right on the way down. How do we get to such desperate places? How can we possibly hope to recover if no one ever hears us? If we can’t figure out what to say?
“What the fuck is wrong with the bus?” I said.
He wasn’t getting it. He wasn’t getting the implications of what he was saying.
“I said, what the fuck is wrong with riding the bus?” Rounding the words. Hearing myself make my voice into a threat.
I felt the couch cushions move as people shifted in their seats away from me.
“Dude. He didn’t say anything was wrong with the bus,” said someone else.
I was still staring at the smile.
“Calm down, David,” said Angie.
“No, it’s okay,” said the smile.
“Sounds like you think there may be something demeaning about riding the bus,” I said. “Or that there’s something wrong with living somewhere other than a hermetic, sealed-off, glassed-in shithole.”
I was trying hard to hold on. I could feel it coming.
“Yeah, I knew this was going to happen,” the smile responded. “I knew you’d fucking weird out on us the second you walked in the door.”
“Peter, hang on,” Angie said.
It seemed that the music had stopped.
“We know,” he said. “We all know why Laura left town. What you did to her. And I have a big problem with you sitting there. After you drove her out with your bullshit.”
“Not true,” I heard myself say, my head beginning to really get up and pound itself.
“That she left just to get the fuck away from the nightmare you made.”
“The black eye. The blackouts.” He emphasized the word. Squeezed it through his mouth at me.
“It was an accident. I have a condition,” I said. “It’s hard to explain.”
“So you hit her?”
There was something inescapably hypnotic about watching that mouth. It was fifty degrees in the apartment and I was still sweating, locked in his teeth. I was watching him chew words at me. Was in his mouth and he was tearing into me. He was ripping me apart in front of all these strangers.
“He’s drunk,” Angie said.
“Who cares?” Peter said, not moving from my eye as I felt a drifting calm.
“We’re all drunk.”
I don’t remember the cab home. I came to with the driver shouting at me. I threw a 20-dollar bill at him and fiddled with my keys in the dark. The humidity hadn’t relented and the night hugged me close. I was thankful to be back in the heat.
“Give me my money, bitch,” someone shouted from the end of the block. A group had gathered in front of the house. Fifty years ago, vines probably covered its trellises, climbed the porch and wrapped around it. And there were tulips in the flower boxes. And the street was quiet and the weather pleasant.
“Shut up!” I heard myself yelling northward. “Just shut up. Shut the fuck up.”
I stared into the dark for a second and the shouting stopped. There were crickets in the air already. The summer getting older, stretching out toward the long autumn and the fluish winter.
My key fit in the door and I unlocked the bolt and pushed into the still air of the entranceway, sweat spilling down my back. I walked upstairs and collapsed into bed on my stomach.
The ceiling fan made its rhythmic grinding noises.
I fell asleep.
It took a week of short mornings to turn over enough soil. Garbage finally stopped coming out of the box. It was getting toward the end of August and too hot for violence even. The checkpoints were taken down. I stopped wondering about the cuts on my arm, but I put the steak knives in the freezer just in case.
The progress still felt like something. The project was taking on a more expansive role. If I fixed up one flower box, I could do more. I felt invested in the process of making the neighborhood better. I worked in the mornings and thought about plans to redo all of the flower boxes on my block. Even the one in front of the Victorian. I searched the internet for advice about late-season plantings. I researched different watering methods and read gardening blog reviews of gloves and trowels.
I sent Laura an email about my grand plans to make the block greener. I was self-deprecating, funny even, I thought.
I told her that I was thinking about calling the office. Maybe starting with a new therapist. Trying to get on track. That things were getting better. That I would love to hear her voice.
She didn’t respond, and work stopped for a while. I lay around the house a lot. Checked Facebook. Moved plates from one part of the counter to another. Sorted and resorted clothing into new and different piles. The house became a site of reorganizations and manipulations again.
Finally, the last Saturday in August, I walked down to the hardware store on Pennsylvania Avenue. I went through the aisles with a small basket. I wanted a trowel to detail the edges, and needed some fertilizer to put down before I picked out flowers.
I found two different varieties of fertilizer and considered both of them, cradling the basket on my left wrist. A woman wearing a red vest that said Buy Frager’s! Buy Local! in white lettering asked if I needed any help.
“No thank you,” I said.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
I turned to look at her. “Sorry?” Sweaty in the cold store. The smell of fertilizer in my nostrils.
“You’ve been standing here for a half hour, sir.”
“I’m fine, thank you,” I said. “Just something I’m dealing with.” Uncertain if I was being totally honest about that.
The woman looked at me for a second more, and then walked away. I put down the basket and rubbed my wrist, which had a deep red imprint of the basket’s handle on it. I thought for a second and picked up one of the fertilizer bags, then walked slowly down the aisle trying to make my face blank.
When I got home, I sat down at my computer and saw that I had an email from Laura. It had a lot of exclamation points in it.
A lot of stuff about how fantastic it is that you’re working on something for yourself!!! and that I am so thrilled you’re building something to change the neighborhood!!!
She couldn’t wait to see pictures.
She was doing very well.
We should talk sometime.
Best of luck!!!
I walked down Seventh Street to Eastern Market later that afternoon. I bought mums: orange and deep red. Autumnal colors. They looked tough — like they could withstand the remaining sun and the heat, and whatever other kinds of violence the neighborhood might wreak on them.
I got the flowers into the ground and poured the small bag of fertilizer on top of them. The brown mixture was several shades darker than the dry dust that I’d been removing. It looked healthy, almost alive. I held my hands on the soil, as if trying to feel a pulse. My fingers dug into the darkening earth. I felt the roots spreading out. The impact of the color in the flower box was jarring. I ran inside and filled a jug of water and got a can of Natural Bohemian from the fridge.
I poured the water on the flowers and then sat back on the stoop with the beer, unable to stop myself from thinking about her.
Laura’s family owned a cabin in Colorado that we went to together one summer. We were going through a rough patch. I’d been “resistant” (her word) to “exploring new treatment options” (her phrase).
We drove a rental car into the small town of Salida to get groceries at the supermarket. We bought ground turkey, avocados, heirloom tomatoes and hamburger buns. We bought an enormous chocolate cake. Laura suggested coffee, eggs, and bacon for breakfast, and I thought it would be nice to get some tulips to put in a vase.
When we got to checkout, we argued about who would pay.
“It’s your family’s cabin,” I said, raising my voice. “Let me do it. I’m a guest.”
Laura cleared her throat.
“Okay, you don’t have to get crazy about it.”
“Whatever,” I said. The cashier didn’t say anything. He was looking at the floor.
I took out my debit card and swiped it. We pushed the shopping cart to the car, and unpacked the groceries into the trunk, dropping them with small thuds.
As we drove back to the cabin, Laura took my right hand from the steering wheel and squeezed it. My skin was already getting chapped in the dry air. We didn’t say anything. I watched the road. There was the sound of cars passing in the opposite direction.
Laura turned over the hand and kissed my palm.
That night, sitting outside in rocking chairs after dinner, we watched the silent flashes of lightning out to the east. I could hear Laura whispering counted seconds before the sound of the thunder reached the house. Warm yellow light emanated from the one lamp inside, and cast shadows in front of us.
“You okay?” Laura asked.
“I’m just tired,” I said, watching the distant storm.
We listened to the breeze crackling through the aspens below the cabin.
She put her hand on my back. “I’m here, you know.”
“I know,” I said. But even to me, my voice sounded like it had come from far away, some distant place up on the plateau.
I stood up and looked at the flowers in the ground and finished the beer.
And it was still pretty goddamn hot, so what the hell, I thought. Have another. At this point, there was no hope that the weather would break before Thanksgiving. Mosquitoes everywhere. I noticed patches of loose soil, put down the can of beer, and knelt down to tighten the earth around the flowers. I stood up and looked at them from above. I felt the blood moving through my head. Droplets of water gathered on the petals. Dark clouds had already begun to congeal and the breeze had cooled. The leaves jittered back and forth. The maples and ginkgoes leaning into the street. A woman down the block screamed, I’m serious. Quit it.
I stepped back onto the sidewalk. I held my hands at my side, waiting. But this was it. I could feel things hanging between happening and not happening. Maybe they always were.