Monday, March 26, 2012

Indie Ink Writing Challenge: "The Things You Miss"

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Tara Roberts challenged me with "'Rhode Island is neither a road nor an island... discuss' Mike Myers in SNL skit 'Coffee Talk with Linda Richman'" and I challenged Brett Myers with "'The core is where you write, or do your thing. It's where artists come from.' -Joe Strummer"

We had tried listening to music, but she wasn't happy with that. An audiobook was next, but that wasn't any good either. I tuned in the baseball game, but she complained about that too. So we drove in silence, riding down the claustrophobic highway that runs through the state on the way to the airport. The buildings are unusually close to the road as you rush by them, as if the size of the state left them no room to spread out. It reminded me of Luke Skywalker flying into the tunnel, trying to destroy the Death Star.

"She came from Providence," I sang softly, "the one in Rhode Island-"

"I don't want to listen to you sing," she said flatly.

"Can I hum?," I asked.

"Shut up," she explained.

I slowed down as we approached a forest of brake lights. We had left ridiculously early, my father's prudent planning showing through. Even with traffic, we'd be at the airport 3 hours before her flight.

"I don't know why you insist I use Providence instead of Boston."

"It's nicer. It's cheaper. It's easier to get to. It's smaller."

"Bigger isn't always bad," she said.

I let that sit.

"Did you know there are counties in Texas bigger than Rhode Island?"

"Did you know I don't care?," she said.

The traffic loosened again and I went forward, only to have it slow down again. Progress by increments. Forward a little bit, then stop again. We listened to the little creaks and shifts and bumps that cars make when they are uncovered by silence.

"When do you think you can come back?," I said.

"I told you I don't know. It's going to take as long as it takes."

"I know you don't know. But when do you think?"

"Not for at least a month."

"You can call, right?"

"I'll call when I can," she said evenly. She half turned, looking out the window. "I'll be busy."

"I know. I just want you to know that I'll miss you." The traffic stopped again, right next to a billboard for a strip club. I thought about the time I went in one, congratulating a friend after he passed his boards, the parody of sexuality it was, love and sex and beauty reduced to a cold, unsentimental business transaction.

"I know that," she said.

"One of my father's friends was away from his wife for a year and a half once. And they survived."

"That doesn't help," she said softly. "Nothing helps, nothing makes it any better. We've said everything that there is for us to say. There isn't anything else. I don't want to do this, but I have to. I'll stay in touch as best I can. You'll write me, I'll write you. You'll miss me, I'll miss you. I just don't want to talk about it any more. I don't want to think about it anymore. I just want to get there, and get it done, and get back as quick as I possibly can so we can get back to our lives. That's it. That's all I want. I need this job, and we need the money. So just let me do it my own way. Don't comfort me. Don't tell me it's going to be OK. Because it's not."

We accelerated again, then stopped, creeping and beeping towards the airport exit. I could feel the seconds ticking by. She had been away before, and so had I. It had to be done. But it didn't get easier.

"I wish you didn't have to go," I said helplessly. She didn't say anything. I let a minivan move in front of me. "Marriage=1 Man + 1 Woman", the sticker on the bumper said. I wondered what kind of person insisted that nothing ever changes, that everything has to be the same forever. I could understand deriving some comfort from that notion, but it wasn't reality. Life wasn't like that.

"I'm going to miss the hell out of you," I said. I knew she didn't want to hear it, but I had to hear myself say it.

I found the airport exit, waited my turn, and then accelerated onto the ramp. This was it, a split in the path of our lives together, an onramp onto another part of our lives. The same, but also very different.

"I will be here when you get back," I said to her. She knew that, I'm sure, but she remained silent. When I pulled over at the curb, she got out without a word. I got out and helped her get her suitcases out, tipping the redcap as he spirited the bags away.

She slung her pink and black carry on over her shoulder, then turned to me, pressing against me, turning her head to one side and grabbing me tightly. I let my arms find her waist, and we stood there for a moment, among the chaos and the noises and the exhaust fumes. I eyed a cop warily, who looked like he was going to ask me to move along. He suddenly thought better of it.

"I'm sorry," she said into my chest.

"It's OK," I said.

"Goodbye," she said.

"Goodbye," I said, and she turned and walked into the terminal.

I got back into my car and moved back into the traffic pattern. I had lived alone before, and I could do it again. There would be less bickering about the television, and I could probably go to the movies more. Things would be different without her. But that was the thing about love. When you were in love, when you were part of something larger than yourself, you felt incomplete when your other half was gone. You missed the sound, the smell, the touch. You even missed the aggravation.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Terrible Minds Challenge: "The Marianas Trench"

Chuck Wendig, owner of all things Terribly Minded and master of all he surveys, has another Flash Fiction Contest, this time about settings. I chose The Bottom Of The Ocean, and present to you "The Marianas Trench".

Even the waves sounded unsettled. The constant grumbling of water hitting the shore echoed my unsettled stomach. I was nervous. I really had no reason to be. The day had opened gray and surly, low clouds promising rain that they hadn't yet delivered. Everything was clothed in a fog so thick you could hear the ocean, but not see it. I didn't know what I expected to find here, but I was pretty sure that, whatever it was, it wouldn't live up to my expectations. Nothing ever did.

"Just walk along the path, along Ocean Boulevard, where those benches are, next to the beach, and I'll meet you. I run down that path every morning with my dog Sparky, before 7. I have no problem chatting for a bit." That was the message she had left me, next to a tiny picture of Sparky, when I saw it on my Facebook page this morning. Business had left me in her city with a morning to kill before my flight leaves.

I had found her at that 21st century watering hole, apologizing at length for the atrocious way I had treated her, 20 years and several lifetimes ago. "No worries, we were young," she said then. When I discovered I would be within a few miles of her home, I asked for the meeting, not being shocked that she didn't immediately respond. When I saw her note this morning, it jump started a frenzy of activity, packing my clothes and showering and taking a taxi to be on the path at the right time.

I saw her pop out of the murk. She had a light jacket over some sort of exercise top and tight running pants. I gawked. I couldn't help myself. She still had the firm body of a teenager. If you didn't know, she could pass for a tall undergraduate, her long hair swinging back and forth as she ran, her dog, a friendly looking beagle, happily trotting along beside. Her face was unmistakable, angular and sharp like the prow of a ship.

"Sarah?," I said when she came close enough.

"Oh! Oh!," she said softly. That was absolutely her. Her voice was almost a whisper. I knelt down to acquaint myself with her dog, resting my luggage on the ground. I let him sniff me, then scratched him behind his ears gently. "I didn't recognize you with a mustache, Jon." And with 50 more pounds, she didn't say.

"It's me," I said. I wasn't sure what else to say. My heart pounded. "Your dog is beautiful," I said. So are you, I didn't mention. Age gave her a seriousness she never had before. She didn't need me to protect her from anything now. Maybe she never did.

"You teach marine biology, huh?," I continued, grappling for a handhold on the conversation.

"Yes," she said. "We're leaving on a research trip this afternoon. Three weeks diving to the bottom of the ocean."

"Three weeks?," I said. "What happens to this guy?" Sparky looked up at me, as if he knew I meant him.

"He stays with Aunt Sherry here on land. One of my students."

"What are you studying?"

"Basically, the life forms at different levels of the sea, and how they interact." She was dancing back and forth on her toes, almost like she was a boxer. Everything she did was uncommonly graceful.

"Don't robots do that?"

"Sometimes. Other times, we go down there."

"Down to the bottom of the ocean?" I thought about all that water, tons and tons and tons of it, pressing down on a fragile little cocoon of steel. I imagined her down there, her hair pulled back into a sensible bun, like she wore when she danced, checking items off a list or urgently typing on a laptop.

"Nearly," she said. She started stretching, trying to stay loose. She bent low from the waist and I peeked at her decolletage. It looked familiar. I remembered what she looked like 20 years ago without a top on, tiny, precious, and vulnerable, bones visible through the skin. She probably looked the same now.

"That must be scary. All that pressure bearing down on you."

"Well, it's like my boss says," she said, chuckling. "If anything goes wrong, there's nothing you can do about it, so there's no sense worrying. Nobody is coming to the rescue."

I felt a spasm of worry. Don't go, I wanted to say. Stay here. Stay with me. Let's find what we had before.

"You look great," I said, looking into her kind eyes, seeing how they were starting to wrinkle at the sides.

"Thank you," she said. "I try to stay in shape."

"We were something back then, weren't we?"

"Yes, we were," she said. "It was a long time ago. We were just kids. We didn't know what love was."

We know better now, I thought. Come back East with me. Let's make it happen again.

"I'm not sure I know now," I said.

"I'm not either," she said ruefully. "But I'm getting closer."

Sparky started to strain at his leash. A seagull was walking by, heedless of the danger.

"You have to catch your plane," she said.

"You're right," I said. I thought about her, alone under all that water, intent on her work, as far away from others as you can be. What kind of person does that? Clearly not the same girl who cried while I rubbed her aching legs. She didn't need anyone. Certainly not me.

"It was nice meeting you."

"You too."

"Good luck."


I watched her walk away, then break into a run, someone I was close to, now as distant as the very bottom of the Marianas Trench.