There’s a more beautiful place to start. Somewhere between where his lips part, where my past and future open wide to meet my mouth. But I will start inside the ugly gaps, inside the crevices of my hardships, because that is where you will see the purpose of my journey. Perhaps if you see the spinning rudder that has propelled me, you will not hate or love me too much for what I have chosen. Possibly, you might come to value the intricacy of love’s fingerprint as I have.
I wanted to run. I ran. Through the rows of trees and over the dusty pebbles, I could feel my feet and pulse pounding in time. I knew I would not be able to find him no matter how fast or far I pushed myself, but it seemed worth a try. Why would he be in these woods? He wouldn’t. I disguised this cardiac circus of mine as something healthy. I also disguised my reality but leaving my wedding band on the bathroom sink.
Here and there when I would stop to wipe the sweat from my hairline, I turned around quickly, stomach lurching- hoping that I would see him behind me. Maybe just this once. But the leaves rustled and the clouds drifted and I was alone. This forest and this path used to comfort me. I stood soaked in sweat, miles from home. It would be miles to get back again. I pictured what I believed his smile looked like now, hypothetically how my hand would fit inside of his. I inhaled and began the tiresome trek back.
The mountains of Tennessee are more depressing than they are beautiful. Of course, when I was a little girl they seemed to glow with the magic of possibility. Undying creatures of Faerie and Middle Earth flitted about in my imagination and also in those smoky, mysterious mountains. I painted my small arms with finger paints and markers; I wore wings made of grandma’s skirts. Large hazel eyes gleamed as I sang my songs of pink horses and frosted cupcakes. In my six year old imagination, I believed that the orange lines on the trees in our backyard were landing sites for small alien ships. Momma told me that they were markers for the tree cutters. I did not conclude that soon our entire wooded yard would be littered with piles of slain fir trees. I supposed that this was something for grownups to consider and continued about my adventures.
The day that my Dad visited my house in the woods, it was mild and breezy. The first rows of the firs had been butchered and I was nestled beside the root cellar. Hugging my knees closely to my chest, rested my head on them, letting my mouth unhinge slightly. I saw Grandma, whom I affectionately referred to as “Rosie”, through the kitchen window, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. Maybe she had been very good friends with that patch of trees I thought. The rumble of tires on gravel and plumes of dust signaled the approach of his black truck. Looking back, it see now that this day held all of the signs of change. But little girls do not understand the gravity of change as it is happening…only much later.
My dad was lean and muscular. He wore a blue bandanna nestled in his long hair, and I found him to be both striking and frightening. I saw him flick the butt of his cigarette into the gravel. When he saw me, tiny and wild, he paused and went to one knee. He winked and gestured for me to come to him. I only knew of his hugs through a handful of other similar experiences. “They are taking our trees away” I said boldly, still beside the root cellar, bare toes planted as little roots. A small patch of prickly grass scratched at my foot, but I overlooked it for the moment. “Did you tell them that they could?”
He smiled in his charming way and laughed genuinely, “No, Els. You’ll have to ask your Grandma why they are cutting down the trees.” I took his laughter as an insult and squeezed my knees closer yet. Admitting his defeat, he got up and came next to me. “You’re a tough one” he said with adoration and pulled my head next to his. My long, unruly hair twisted around in his beard and I could smell the unfamiliar scent of marijuana in his tee shirt. “I’m not going to see you again, little one.”
I closed my eyes and let a solitary tear escape through my eyelashes. “I will wait for you to come back” I said firmly. “You will have to forget about me, Elsie” he said through his pursed lips as they kissed my forehead. He looked away suddenly. “They’re going to find me if I come back here for you.”
“Will they come to look for me too?” I wondered aloud. “Are they the ones stealing our trees?” He cupped my small face in his strong hands. “You will be just fine. Someday someone will take care of you. And I will owe them one hundred thank- yous” he said, his voice wavering. I certainly knew that I would rather take my bag of books and candies to live with the fairies the trees before I would need someone to care for me. But, I solemnly nodded my head to console him.
Before he got back into his truck, he stopped and reached into his pocket. I was still at my post beside the cellar, now standing stiffly. “Can you hold onto this for me?” he asked nearly playfully. It was a silver cigarette case. Seeing the look on my face, he knelt once more and put it into my hands. “Don’t open it until later, Els. I love you” And before I could remark, he was gone in a cloud of dust just as he had appeared.
The window had been left open all night, and my throat was stiff and dry in the cold morning air. I searched for my shirt, but could only find one sock. Quietly as possible I grabbed a nearby sweatshirt and slid it on. “Awe, come on “the boy’s voice sighed. I turned sharply and rolled my eyes. “Get over it” I said mildly annoyed. “Fine. Go. But just for the record, I know how old you are. Not bad for fifteen” I decided that this was worth even less of my time that I had even calculated originally. “Yeah, and for the same record, I know that you’re all talk” I said, throwing his stupid boxers at his face.
On my way to school I opened up my silver cigarette case and pulled out a piece of gum. As the raspberry flavor stung my tongue, I let a solitary tear slip through my eyelashes.
Two summers after they cleared away our trees entirely, I spent my time in the garden. My dainty curls bobbed far below the tops of the corn stalks, while I was shrieking at beetles. Although Grandpa John wished that I was a boy, he would still pick me up with one arm and plop me on his lap for a ride on his John Deere tractor. In my mind, I would stare at the small, shiny icon of a jumping deer and think how wonderful it was that my Grandpa had his own tractor named after him.
I would return to the red house, soil- stained, and my grandma Rosie would nearly shed a tear as she saw my long hair knotted and my small pink shoes full of mud. And of course, she was routinely dismayed at the sight of the Crayola graffiti across my face.
She’d let out a long sigh, “I see that you’ve been out adventuring…”
With a thin- lipped smirk, I would give her a very slow, exaggerated wink because, really, I was not very good at winking.
Her kitchen was filled with aromas that made you feel both sleepy and ravenous at once. I would take small licks and tastes of everything she was making, which would always result in being too full for dinner, which would in turn produce another light- hearted scold from my robust grandmother. I hugged her legs as she briskly stirred her sauces and so gently kneaded breads. Her threadbare, patterned aprons smelled of laundry soap and flour. I wish that I could take that smell with me everywhere.
With the dedication of a tiny soldier, I would mechanically set the table. Just perfectly. Two forks, a spoon, two knives, and triangled cloth napkins (which also smelled like Rosie’s aprons). She used her “good china” every day. She would say, “Who is a more honored guest than your family?” Every meal was prepared and served as though we were entertaining Martha Stewart.
Before meals Grandpa would sit at the head of the table and produce his soft, leather Bible. He was so incredibly stern that I would press my thumb into my throat so I would. Not. Even. Cough. He would then pray a long, sad prayer about the elderly, sick people from church; also listing off several frightening things from which we needed God’s “sovereignty and protection.” Finally, we would eat. Many evenings I would imagine droves of hellish devils and sparkling angels as I pushed around peas with my fork or picked at a roll. I always cleared off the dishes alone, contemplating the quandaries of humanity.
I wasn’t even that drunk the night I broke my ankle. My best friend Sam, however, was tripping heavily while braiding my hair. “You should never change, Els! You should always be…beautiful!” she laughed hysterically through her words and yanked with an unknowing force at my hair. I didn’t mind at all. She was all I really had, it seemed.
“So….was he mind- blowing, lovie?” her question was accompanied by a wet kiss on my cheek. I made a sarcastic gagging noise and wiped my face with my sleeve, giggling.
“I didn’t even kiss him!” I squealed with a fabricated tone of insult. Knowing the ridiculous nature of my comment, we looked at each other and laughed until our eyes brimmed with tears. Then, with a sudden tone, so grave I could have intimidated the Pope himself, I put up my hand. “He was all talk. All.” We blurted out again, and she was shaking more than she should have been. I thought she was just laughing.
The hours meandered along like they would on any other of our teenage Saturday nights. Vodka shots, cookie baking, cigarette smoking, doing hair and makeup. All while screaming along to the Pixies or Nada Surf. Fifteen fit us perfectly. Sam’s parents were never home, so it felt as though we had our own house. But, at two o’clock, when the rest of the neighborhood snored evenly, Sam stopped breathing.
I was on the roof smoking an orange- flavored cigarette, feeling sophisticated. I saw her turn her head and her eyes roll to white. She was motionless on the carpet. As I scrambled to get back through the window to her side, I lost my balance and tumbled inside. I couldn’t move, so I just cried.
I breathed the cold city air in so deeply that I could feel it swirling down my throat and dropping into my stomach. This was a frightening place. Expressionless faces passed me. Sometimes taxi headlights illuminated their eyes and still I could see no trace of feeling. I knew nothing of this demanding metropolis. New York. Why had I come here? It was too late to leave and I didn’t trust myself to answer that question honestly anway, so I took a long sip of whiskey and kept walking, continuing the quest for the best lamp lit bench. The spot that I had felt drawn to hours earlier had since been occupied by heavyset man. His beard was massive and rumpled, and I imagined that it was the home to any number of small creatures. Perhaps a tiny hermit crab or an infinitesimal owl. He hacked and coughed to what I thought would surely be his death. I rolled my eyes and cradled my laptop slightly closer to my side.
I wandered the same sidewalks for another hour. Breathing, reflecting. I knew that the words would come to me; that the story’s ending would somehow tie itself together into a perfect bow. I sighed heavily and stopped to look around. Though it was not a bench, not at all what I had been looking for, I knew that this was where I was suppose to finish the book. In the dim, flickering light of a streetlight, there was a small set of wooden stairs. Making my way to them, I crossed the now quiet street and sat down. These steps appeared to lead nowhere. Rickety and cold, they continued up wards to a door. But I remained on the second step, feeling convinced and energized in the blush of the flickering light.