This and That
May 1, 2002
I deserted her at a filling station
by Brendan McKennedy
e sit cross-legged on our bare mattress and eat individual chicken pot pies. Our mattress is baby blue, quilted, with a creased tag that sticks up at the foot like the rudder of a capsized boat. We call our halves of the bed Driver's Side and Passenger Side. There's a wine stain on the Driver's Side; it looks as if I suffered a head wound while I was sleeping.
One of us is not talking to the other, so the other has given up, but I can tell that's not on her mind anymore. Her brow, twitching and puckering, telegraphs her thoughts. Chin buried in her chest, she negotiates potato chunks out of the gravy. She doesn't like the potatoes. Piled on her paper-towel, they look like drowned playing dice. I drink root beer and she drinks Diet Coke; the plastic bottles roll all over the place any time one of us shifts. Her patience is astonishing: she keeps picking up her bottle and laying it down in this one spot where it won't stay. It will roll away and she'll pick it up again and gingerly lay it back at the same volatile coordinates. She doesn't even frown when it rolls away again.
Four nights ago I stood outside the bathroom, arguing with her while she brushed her teeth. Without warning, she swiped the door shut and smashed my fingers on the jamb. The door bounced open off my knuckles; I gasped and sat down hard on the carpet. She stood over me in her pink pajamas, hand across her mouth, toothbrush protruding from between her fingers, horror in her eyes. In that white instant of pain, whatever my complaint had been slipped away.
The afternoon sun is a rectangular searchlight through the window, tumbling over cardboard boxes that drift willy-nilly across the carpet. One box is open, half unpacked, its smallish contents laid on the floor around it in a vague semicircle. The box is labeled with black magic marker, in three-inch capital letters, THIS AND THAT. I wonder what qualifies as THIS, and what has been relegated to THAT. Maybe the pushpins in a plastic snap-shut box are THAT. I'd say the origami penguin she made for me on our first anniversary is THIS. I feel a wistful pleasure to see that she planned to take the penguin with her, but it scares me deep in my guts that she and her boxes were almost not here when I got home from work.
People are yelling outside, where the humidity is fifty percent. They may be jeering at each other in the pool; they may be arguing. I open my mouth to ask if we have put the chain on the door, but change my mind at the last instant. She has caught the motion of my face and lifts her eyes to me, expectantly. I raise my brows, innocent, and we both go back to our pies. Sometimes, when we're quiet enough for a long time, I begin to wonder what holds us together.
One morning, last April, on the way to her sister's wedding, I deserted her at a filling station. We had been arguing on and off, and then had stopped speaking altogether. We drove in silence for an hour. The radio was off; the tires rumbled distantly. The intermittent pines rising from the embankments threw blue shadows across the windshield. When I stopped for gas, she stalked away toward the restroom without looking at me, her yellow flats clapping on the oily asphalt. I paid the cashier, sat for a few minutes gnawing the sides of my tongue, the engine running. Then I unhitched the handbrake and pulled away fast. I searched for her in the mirrors, my heart thumping; I didn't want her to see my brake lights burn away.
When I turned into the same parking lot thirty minutes later, she was sitting in her yellow dress and blue sweater, on a bench outside the red brick building, hands clasped in her lap. I stopped alongside her and reached across to open the passenger door. Her face was expressionless. She sat down in the car, clicked her seatbelt in, and gently pulled the door shut.
Fifteen minutes down the road, we drove over long skid marks that drew a hard left turn, from our lane onto a gravel access path that cut across the median. She said, 'Is that where you turned around?' Her tone was too casualshrill and musical, flute-like.
'No,' I said. 'About five miles up from here.' Immediately I wished I had lied. She'd be looking for skid marks five miles up. She'd be working the algebra: Did I drive faster when I was leaving, or when I was coming back?
She likes the peas, which I hate. I keep herding my peas back under the pastry roof, where they are now piling up. When I peel back the last square inches of crust, the peas will line the pleated perimeter of the tin, like people at a bus stop. My fingers throb beneath their Band-Aids. Out in the parking lot, her car's muffler hangs suspended from the chassis by duct tape. Her soft drink bottle rolls away; unperturbed, she plucks it out of motion and sets it in its place, where it will never lie still.
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