Just have to edit it now, but I think it's finished. Might certainly change the title, btw. Contains adult content and swearing.
Kathy first met him in north concourse of the Miami airport. Outside the dusk air was shimmering off the pavement and the large heady clouds that had formed over the Everglades rolled close to the ground so that water somehow seemed to be everywhere. They did not speak until after everything had happened. There was a little old lady in front of her, waiting in line for coffee. As the woman struggled with her bags, a young man who was possibly still a boy rudely shoved in front of her and began ordering. Then Gracen—for that was his name, she came to find out—took control of the situation. The swiftness with which he handled it was admirable; first a loud but calm voice, then a grab by the shirt collar, then a quick twist and the young manboy was out of the line and in propelled into the arms of two airport security men, and the little old lady was being gingerly helped forward. He turned to Kathy then, and asked if she were alright, touching her gently on the wrist to draw her attention away from the security guards. They got a coffee together.
“I’ve just gotten out of the AmeriBubble,” Kathy pronounced to him, sipping her hot coffee in the artificial chill of the airport. Sudden bouts indoors in Miami always made her feel like she was moving through a bowl of JELLO. “Been wanting to go somewhere new, somewhere with beauty instead of grime or crime or whatever people think Miami has, before I go for my master’s in the summer.”
“What’s the AmeriBubble?” he asked.
“Oh. It’s this…well, I was in AmeriCorp working with these impoverished kids in Oklahoma, and … it’s just that you spend so long around this tiny group of really, uhm—I guess you could call us do-gooders—and everyone’s out in the middle of nowhere all working towards this common goal of helping out these kids, really great kids I mean, even the awful ones, because there’s always a spark of something wonderful in a child, and you kind of create your own little world, away from politics and pollution and crime and the rat race and all that. The AmeriBubble.”
He was a handsome man. She thought she’d continue.
“Anyway, I got back home and I looked around and thought, I’ve just got to get out of here. If I spend another week in this place I’ll go crazy. It’s too … off … to come to after the Bubble, too fake.”
“So you like things to be real, do you?”
“I do. Definitely.”
“And then what about what’s between us?” Gracen pried her hands slowly from her coffee and smothered them with his own; they were large hands, careworn, but Kathy thought she could detect a softness there that other women would have missed. Then he pulled her forward and kissed her.
They got married after two weeks in Montana together. Kathy’d said she wanted to go somewhere with beauty, and the staggering nature of the wide, blown open state had been exactly what she’d needed. Gracen had changed her flight so she could fly with him, and the next thing she knew they stood almost alone before the altar in a between-towns church that clung to the edge of Glacier National Park. It had happened so quickly she couldn’t hardly believe. But that was Gracen’s way; he had this innate sense of what she wanted and needed—even if she never said it, never felt it, never knew it herself. So when he explained so well that of course she wanted to marry him, she suddenly knew that she did. That’s why she was so grateful to be his.
She was grateful for a lot of things, in the beginning.
“What are those?”
Kathy looked up from the kitchen table. It straddled the majority of the kitchen of the clapboard house, and had a view of a violently sloping hillside and then crags in the distance.
“Just some paperwork for school. I had to redo some things since I’m married now.”
“School?” Gracen came over and sat his cup of coffee down upon the table. “I thought you told me you didn’t want to mess with any of that anymore.”
“Did I?” Kathy frowned.
“I’m sure of it. Don’t you remember, we were talking about how fucked up people grow about their careers instead of the things that really matter? About how you wanted to surround yourself with only those who know what matters and who don’t become concerned with that whole ladder of success thing?”
“Oh. Well, yeah. I do remember that. But I didn’t mean about … about …”
“You didn’t mean about you. Is that it? Don’t go all hypocritical on me, Kat.”
“But,” she said, and she could not help but hear her voice rise. Surely neither could he. It was irritating, and yet she knew in that smallish, ordinarily quiet place of her mind that there was a good reason her voice rose; the reason was lodged there, deep in the part of her head which thought in soft images and abstractions that made perfect sense: What matters but the desires of the soul? What does the soul desire? More. More of anything, in most part. More of the song on the player. More of the soup in the pot on the stove. More love. More experience. More of the idea of more. What else does someone who teaches do beside offer “more?” And did she say any of this? No.
“But,” she said again, voice now controlled, “it’s one of the best programs in the country. I’ll learn the tools there I need to make a difference, a real difference, in the lives of kids who really need it. I mean, it’s a groundbreaking program, very prestigious. A once in a lifetime slot. I can’t just give it up.”
“See? You’re not even there and you’re buying into it. Buying into an idea, Kat; the idea that you can only do what you want to do with your life if you go to their school. Don’t you see? Don’t you see how they’ve got you up against a wall already, and you aren’t even attending?” Gracen drained his coffee, stood decisively, came to her and slipped his thick arms around her shoulders, constricting gently about her neck as he leaned over. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t let them pull you into it? Oh Kat, I love you.”
And that was the end of her masters.
At the time she hadn’t minded, for though there was a sneaking suspicion somewhere in the back of her mind about the validity of his arguments, she couldn’t pinpoint any untruths. And so she’d been grateful that yet again Gracen had the wherewithal to show her what she wanted and didn’t. Seemed she spent most of her time, in those days, ridiculously grateful.
It was the blizzard that did it. This was what she thought, laying there, bloody head on the tiny hearth in the suddenly empty house. Once she’d had a head so filled with thoughts it had seemed as there would never be enough time or justice in the world to make sense of them. Now, just the one: It was the blizzard that did it. Not, I wonder what the color of my blood is in this dim lighting? Not, oh I forgot to clean the baseboards last week. Not, I miss my family. Not, I miss my life. No.
It was the blizzard that did it. The blizzard that had made her act so foolishly. The blizzard that had caused such an awful argument. She pushed herself up slowly, first rolling gently to one side, then rocking upward on her elbow. Her head spun. How long had she been out?
This was the first thought she’d had of herself, for herself, in a long time, she realized. A very long time.
That evening, Kathy heard Gracen chipping the refrozen ice melt in front of the living room door with a shovel. By the time she’d made it off the couch, he’d shoved himself into the house once more, and the anger from earlier had drained from his face, and she knew it had done so in the slow way of the faucet in the kitchen that refused sometimes to completely stop when the handle was flicked, and instead tapered off at its own pace, contentedly, until finally it came out only one drop at a time until it was spent. Yes, one drop at a time the anger must have drained from him, she knew, and now he stood in front of her, wavering, worried, face red—from crying, she guessed, though she would never mention it, and he would never admit it. He came to her and held her in his arms, and that night they rolled in the sheets, tasting the emotions that dripped from their bodies straight through until dawn, for fear she would fall asleep and never wake up.
When the sun rose, they did too, and made coffee to sip while they peered out the sharp angles of the one kitchen window. Tanya was coming up to the house, the back way like everyone did in those parts, to meet Kathy for their morning walk before work. Gracen tightened his grip around Kathy, for he still had her in his grasp, tighter, tighter, and then half-shoved her—playfully, she told herself—against the kitchen counter and made for the front door. He didn’t approve of Tanya. Didn’t approve of much of anyone or anything it seemed, but that was only because Kathy never really seemed to know what or whom she wanted in her life. Of course she was grateful to him, but at times like this, giant gash on her head, hair mottled with the crust of blood they’d forgotten to clean the night before, possible concussion, etc. and etc., explanations needed to be made. She couldn’t understand why he didn’t realize this; if someone showed up and saw them cuddlebugging in the kitchen while she was all banged up, that someone would require an explanation, whether or not they outright asked. And Tanya was the kind of woman who asked.
“Hey Kathy, how are you? I brought us a treat from the bakery—got them yesterday but I’m willing to bet these sticky buns will last till the Apocalypse. So what have you—holy—what the hell happened to you? My God. My fucking God. Are you alright. Sit down. Sit down right now. Do you need water? I’ll get you water.” The sticky buns were abandoned.
“Tanya, I’ve got coffee. Tanya, I’ve got coffee already, I said. I’m fine. Why don’t you sit down. Hey, here, have a seat.” Kathy pushed the opposite chair out with the tip of her bare toes as Tanya turned to her, empty water glass so tight in hand it was as if it were some sort of talisman against the blood and bruises.
Tanya sat. Placed the glass slowly on the table.
“Alright. What the hell happened?” Tanya had a habit of repeating herself when she was distraught; since she was a great talker and usually distraught about something this could often become a pain; her stories took three times the length they ought, but then again, she could get to the point with surprising brevity when the situation called for it. Like now. What the hell happened? The sentence floated on the thin dry air.
“Just an argument. Really Tanya, it’s nothing big. We were both on edge what with the blizzard. Cabin fever, I guess. Anyway, it’s all alright now.”
“Cabin fever.” It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. Of disbelief.
“You need to go to the hospital. Get some X-Rays. Get cleaned up.”
Kathy shrugged again.
“I can get perfectly clean here. And we don’t think I’ve got a concussion anyway, so it’s nothing that serious. Just some bruises, some blood.”
Tanya stared at her, hard. They skipped the morning walk that day and went straight to work.
Kathy preferred to not think of it as growing old together, as she and Gracen aged and their tiny clapboard house became cramped with the accumulated clutter of two people, two lives, two years; then five, then ten, then twelve. She preferred to think of it as growing up. Children do it, of course, why couldn’t adults? This was the kind of pillow talk she tried to have in the mornings when Gracen didn’t have to work and was home with her, since she’d long ago quit working at the lodge. He’d smile that sleepy smile of his and pat her indulgently, sometimes a quick slap on her bare thigh as it poked out from the sheets, sometimes a couple soft bumps on her cheek, right where it was still creased with the sheets of the pillow from when he’d pressed her face down into the bed to better fill her with his body.
If she wasn’t in the right mood, this annoyed her. For it seemed to her—only when she was not in the right mood of course—that he saw her as some sort of entertaining animal that could be petted into silliness and submission, some sort of pet that must be treated as if her thoughts and actions and words mattered, though they didn’t. And then she would get angry, deep in the bottom of her torso, so that she’d have to skip her coffee because the acid would hit her stomach like a thick, rich pour of mean black anger that would broil and bubble inside of her until it spewed. And then they would fight, and then she would hurt, and then he would leave and the anger would be beaten from her and drained from him, and then he would come home and hold her and make love to her; how then did it even matter? So she strove to be ever in the right mood. Strove to prefer to think of those little pets and pats as the touch of a man who loved his woman; nothing more and nothing less.
He’d given her a couple of those love-taps the morning that Tanya’s son showed up, a bit sunburned and looking for advice on joining the Peace Corps. Tom was his name; he practically sprang through the kitchen screen door, like he always did when he stopped by to chat. One of those incredibly energetic boys who’d grown into a man—and when exactly had that happened, she wondered—whose entire being sizzled with willpower and barely compressed kinetics. With him in the kitchen, the house seemed about half-sized. Kathy smiled as he folded himself into the chair at the table, elbows on the table, jaw in hands as he looked expectantly at her, then quickly pulling the elbows off the table and straightening.
“I knew if I had any questions about volunteer work I should come to you.”
He blinked at her. Suddenly Kathy was glad Gracen was at work; he’d pointed out time and again how revisiting her past just made her one of those people, the kind of people who lived more in the past than in the present, and she didn’t want to be one of those people. But this young man, she’d watched him rescue baby birds from the highway, for heaven’s sakes. Heart of gold, this one. If he wanted her to pick apart her past to advise him, well, she would.
“Yes,” she heard herself say encouragingly. She poured him a mug of coffee, skipping over her own mug, and sat across from him.
“I just,” and Tom sat there, frowning slightly, head tilted downward as if he wanted to stare right through the table, through the floor, to the deep brown rock earth that lay beneath the foundation of the house, to the center of the world. “I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing.”
“Doing volunteer work is almost always the right thing to do,” Kathy said. “But if you decide you don’t want to go through with it, you can do just as much good in the world by doing what matters, what really matters, deep deep down, to you and only to you and to nobody else.”
“You mean like you?”
The hard Montana wind wuthered on some loose shingles.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean — I — I’m so sorry, Kathy.”
“It’s alright,” she said lightly. However did the conversation get turned to her? “We each live our lives as best we can.”
“He tossing you around still?”
“Just because Mom won’t talk about it doesn’t mean I won’t. I’m the only man big enough and near enough to pull him off of you, Kitten. What happens when I leave the country? What happens when I’m not here to drive back from college, pull you out of his truck and take you to the hospital? What happens when I’m not here to have a morning chat with you before work, to make sure you made it through the night? What happens when there’s no one here to take care of you?”
The pines swayed so hard they ran almost parallel to the sloping ground out the back window. Kitten had been Tom’s name for Kathy since he was two; he heard Gracen calling her Kat and had gotten confused. He was the only one who called her that, the only one who had a nickname for her other than Gracen. In fact, most people avoided talking to her altogether these days. Now that she was a fixture, the novelty of being Gracen’s wife had worn off and nodding politely, rather than engaging conversation, ruled her day trips to town, to the post office, the market, the thrift store.
“Tom, Gracen takes care of me.”
The young man at her table made an odd sound like a hiss of steam and stood.
“Kitten, he…he doesn’t take care of you. He’s demeaning and provoking and he hurts you in every way possible. How do you not see it? How? Can’t you see how special you are, how you ought to be treated? How can you not see it,” Tom repeated. Somewhere along the lines he’d picked up his mother’s habit of repetition. He walked around the table to her. “Kitten, listen… I know you wanted to do the PeaceCorps. You were the one who told me about them, remember? How that when you were young, before you met Gracen, that you wanted the man you’d marry to make a honeymoon out of joining the PeaceCorps, and you could go treat malaria in Africa together and save the world. Do you remember? Do you remember?”
But how did he? Tom knelt. He had grown so big, so big it was impossible, suddenly, to think of him as a boy, as the son of one of her only friends. Impossible to think of him in any other way than a man.
“Well…I’m glad. I’m glad. I wonder sometimes how much of yourself you’ve forgotten, how much of yourself you’ve been convinced isn’t there. By him. And I know he’s your husband, but if he weren’t…if he weren’t…” and Tom slipped Kathy’s hands from her lap and cradled them in his own. Like he held baby birds as a little boy. Softly, softly, so as not to injure, not to startle. He looked into her face, straight across from her, since he was so tall that even kneeling he was at eye level. Whatever he saw there, in her face, she would never know, for he stood, pulling her up to stand in front of him, and held her close to his frame for a moment. Then he kissed her graying head and was gone.
She would not see Tom for a very long time. And she never told Tanya—or Gracen—about his visit.
When Gracen died, she found herself wondering how to feel. There was a vast ocean inside of her, all of a sudden, a wall of watery grief and elation and disappointed hopes and floundering dreams that she could not sort from one another any more than she could sort the salt from the sea or the humidity from warm Miami air. Miami. She hadn’t been there in decades. Fifty-two years. More than half a century ago, she’d left and left for good, to the high lands of the northern states, where the air was thin and the population thinner. Where there was a supposed ragged beauty. Where there was Gracen.
And now he was not there, not here, any more.
Her chest grew full and tight and spatulate. Kathy walked into the small kitchen. In a few days she would have to hold a funeral. Gracen would have despised it, but it was something to be done. For all that he understood about her, her needs and wants, he never understood simple things like that, like saying goodbye to the dead.
Maybe Gracen had been right to despise funerals, Kathy decided as she stood wearily from her pew following the service. He was usually right about things. That much seemd true, though there were hazy memories of him being wrong, true wrong, dead wrong. But surely those were not the kinds of thoughts a widow should have about her recently deceased husband.
“I think I know what you’re thinking, Kitten.”
Kathy turned, slowly. Sure enough, there he was. Filled out even more; had salt and pepper hair and even a short—distinguished looking, she decided—beard.
He came to her and lifted her hands as he had so many, many years ago in Gracen’s tiny kitchen. Tanya stood behind him, bent over her walker. It had been quite the ruckus, getting Tanya to succumb to using a walker. But the benefits far outweighed the detractions; now Tanya had something to be openly and positively dire about to everyone she met. She shuffle-rocked forward but Tom turned to her slightly.
“Mom, can you give us a minute?” Tanya narrowed her eyes and turn-shuffle-rocked towards an empty pew.
“How you holding up, Kitten?” he asked when they stood fairly alone in the front of the parlor. In front of everyone. “You thinking Gracen was right to hate these things?”
Kathy smiled. Smiled at the “Kitten,” smiled at the knowledge Tom seemd to have of her.
“Yes,” she said softly, and was surprised to hear how young her voice sounded.
“And…and how do you feel about them?” The hands that held her own were bare. No ring. Softly, softly. So not to startle or to injure.
“I..I…” and she tipped her head up to him, wondering, maybe for the first time since she’d even contemplated what a funeral for Gracen would be like, exactly how she did feel about them, about funerals. “I…” she said again, “I like them. Gives a woman a sense of closure. A sense of death. Finality. Whatnot.”
“A sense of death,” Tom said. Didn’t sound callous at all when he said it. “I like that. And I like that you like them, that you are able to like them. It’s nice to hear your own thoughts coming out of your own mouth, rather than someone else’s.”
“Nevermind, nevermind. I’m sorry, Kitten. I truly am.” Tom looked alongside him, making note of the few who were willing to pay their respects. “Would you like to come over to the house for dinner, maybe?”
“No, no,” he laughed. “I bought property up Hensen’s way. I'm kind of ashamed that I hadn't told you, but I thought...well, anyway. Nice little house up there, but I don’t guess I’ve been getting much use out of it. But I’d like that to change. Why don’t I pick you up tomorrow night. We can catch up.”
“Tom, I am in mourning.” But she couldn’t keep her voice stern, the way it ought to be. She was delighted, damnit. Nobody had talked to her, really talked and really to her, in so long it almost made her head feel waterlogged.
“Of course you are. And that kind of thing you shouldn’t have to handle alone. So I’ll be by around four, alright? We can talk and I’ll cook you groundnut stew; I think you’ll like it. Love you, Kitten.” And he kissed her softly, softly, on the spot where her mouth wrinkled into her cheek.
Tom’s house was bright and open and a bit startling. After that morning so long ago she’d tried very hard to think of him once more as a young boy, and friend’s child, someone over whom her own life would preside. But this house, with its wide front porch and thrown open windows, was very much adult. It was silly, she realized, to continue trying to think of him as a boy, a child, when he was, what, at least fifty now. Soon she was seated in his front room, watching a black bear drowsily graze in the distance, just there, right before the hills ran into a narrow waterfall. She reached for her iced tea, and that’s when she saw the paperwork.
“Tom?” Tom sat in the recliner beside her. “Tom, what are these?”
“Well,” and his reply was slow, “they’re a lot of things. Thought I’d … keep the options open.”
“Yes. I, uhm. Well, see, here’s how it is,” and he came to her side, sat by her on the couch. His body, so much larger than hers, shielded her from the wind that raced through the open windows. “I’ve loved you for as long as I remember, Kitten. I think you know that. And after that one morning, well, I, I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I tried to live like it didn’t matter. Because….well, the because is besides the point. Besides the point.” He took a breath. “The point is, I do love you and I can let you know now. If you’ll let me. And…well, I’ve got some tickets here, to Miami, if you want to go back. I know you used to miss it. I’d go with you, you know. Or we could go here,” and he shuffled through the papers with one hand, still cradling her other, “to Kenya. It’s beautiful there, and the Maasai are a wonderful people—lots of unrest still, but you’d really enjoy it I think. Maybe. Or there’s this,” he added, still shuffling, “a program for seniors—can you believe it Kitten, we’re both seniors now—where you volunteer to take in students with special learning abilities and disabilities and host them for a while, teach them what you know about life. We could do that right here, from the house. If, of course, you’d…” and for the first moment since she’d allowed herself to admit he was a full grown man, he looked all of a sudden like a boy.
He said no more.
And as he sat there looking so boyish and loving the water inside of her swelled and rose and it was not with grief, nor with bitterness or disappointment or even any of the positive things she associated with Gracen, though here on young Tom's couch there were very few positive things to remember concerning him. No, the swelling inside of her was one which belonged to no one and nobody but her, and it was sweet and fierce and demanding and she hadn't felt anything like it in a very long time, and it washed over her, pulling her into herself and out, out to the world once more with its undertow.
And she was very grateful.