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When I had to say goodbye at the airport, I thought, This is the last time.
The last time you get to kiss her. The last time you get to touch her.
This is the last time you’re ever going to see her face.
And then, after I turned and left, That was it. It’s over.
I guess I went to the gate. I must have boarded a plane. Someone sat next to me, but I don’t remember if it was a man or a woman, what they looked like. What I do remember is thinking everything would have to get easier from that point forward, because nothing could be harder than walking away from Caroline.
It almost makes me laugh now, if you can call it laughter when it comes with the salt-copper taste of blood at the top of your throat. If it’s still a smile when you have to swallow and swallow around it, unable to get rid of the bitter flavor of your mistakes.
I went home to Silt thinking I was heading into some kind of Wild West showdown. I’d call my dad out onto the public street at high noon and we’d draw our pistols. I’d fire straight and true and take him down, and then . . . well, that was the part I had to avoid thinking about. That was the part where the screen starts to go dark, the edges drawing in around a black-bordered circle that shrinks until it’s the size of a quarter, a nickel, a pinhole, nothing.
Nothing. That was where I would live after I drove my dad out of my life once and for all. Inside that blackness where the pinhole used to be, where the light had disappeared from, I’d pitch a tent, pull a blanket around me, and endure.
I was the sheriff, right? And he was the bad guy. But after I took him down, my reward would be an eternity of nothing I wanted. Maybe a gold star to pin on my shirt.
I was so sure I was the fucking sheriff, it almost makes me laugh, because what happened when I got home was that everything sucked in a completely different way from how I thought it would.
I did the impossible and walked away from Caroline.
After that, everything in my life that was hard got harder.
When West’s ringtone starts playing in my darkened bedroom, it slips into my subconscious, and I have one of those last-second-before-you-wake-up dreams that’s pure sensation—his skin warm against me everywhere, his weight and smell, the muscles in his thighs against the backs of mine, his hand sliding down my stomach. All of that, slow and melting and West, until the song finally manages to pierce through the haze of my sleep and pinch me awake.
I fight my way from under the sheet, turned on and pissed off because I know how this goes. The rock in my stomach, the day ahead during which I’ll try and fail to shake that flood of sense-memory.
I’m going to have to live through it, and then I’m going to lose it, every good memory I have of West, again, when what I want is to drop back into that dream and live there instead.
It sucks. It sucks, and I’m so distracted by the suckage that I’m picking up the phone and swiping at the screen with my thumb before I completely register what’s going on.
West’s ringtone. West is calling me.
West is calling me at one a.m. when I haven’t heard from him in two and a half months.
If he’s drunk-dialing me, I’m going to fly to Oregon and kick him in the nuts.
That’s what I’m thinking when I put the phone to my ear—but it’s not how I feel. I wish it were. I wish I could say Hello? and hear West say Hey, and not feel . . . I don’t even know. Plugged in. Lit up. Juiced.
I stand in my dark bedroom, aware in every centimeter of my skin that he’s breathing on the other end of the phone, somewhere on the far side of the country.
I have too many memories that start this way. Too many conversations where I told myself I wouldn’t and then I did.
I have this enormous burden of longing and pain, so heavy I can hear it in my voice when I snap, “What do you want?”
“My dad’s dead.”
My head clears in an instant, my attention sharpening to a point.
“He got shot,” West says, “and it’s . . . it’s a fucking mess, Caro. I know this is—I shouldn’t ask you. I can’t ask you, but I just need to tell you because I can’t fucking—” A crackling whooshing noise interrupts him, the kind of interference that fills your whole head with white sound. I just stand there, waiting for his voice to come back.
I’m pushing the phone so hard against my ear, my breath shallow and fast, aware with the kind of clarity I’ve only found in moments of crisis that it doesn’t even matter. Whatever he says next. It doesn’t matter.
The thing I never understood before West was that there are some people who, when it comes to them, reason and logic are never going to be in charge.
He left me. He hurt me.
But I stand there in the dark, holding the phone, and I know that in a few hours I’ll be on a plane.
I emerge from baggage claim in Eugene to the sight of West leaning against a dirty black truck. The first thing I think is, He cut his hair.
The second thing I think is, Maybe he did it for her.
If there is a her. I’ve never been able to accept that there is, despite what West said.
If she exists, she’s not here. I am.
West looks scary. Stubble covers his scalp, a dark shadow that throws the shapes of his face into relief: jawline, cheekbones, eye sockets, protruding brow, jutting chin, scowling mouth.
The muscles in his crossed arms belong to a brawler.
The West who left me in Des Moines more than four months ago was a guy, sometimes a boy, but this person who’s waiting for me is a big, hard, mean-looking man, and when he glances in my direction, I freeze. Mid-step. I’m wearing a white cardigan over a new green top that cost too much. Designer jeans. Impractical flats. Ridiculous clothes for August, because it’s always cold when you’re flying.
I wanted to look nice, but I got it wrong. I got everything wrong, and yet I think nothing I’ve done is as wrong as whatever is wrong with him.
He straightens and steps forward. I start moving again. I have to.
“Hey,” I say when we meet a few feet from his truck. I try on a smile. “You made it.”
He doesn’t smile in return. “So did you.”
“Sorry you had to pick me up.”
I’d texted right before I boarded the first flight to tell him I was coming. I didn’t want to give him a chance to say no, so I just gave him my flight number and announced when I’d get in.
When the plane landed in Minneapolis, I had three texts and a voice mail from him, all of them variations on the theme of Turn your ass around and go home.
I waited until I was boarding for Portland to text him again. I’ll get a rental car.
Walking off the jet bridge, I got his reply. I’ll pick you up.
Since that was the outcome I’d been angling for, I said, Okay.
It doesn’t feel okay, though. Not even close.
West wears cargo shorts and a red polo with a landscaping company’s logo. He’s tan—a deep, even, golden brown—and he smells strongly of something I don’t recognize, fresh and resinous as the inside of our cedar closet after my dad sanded it down. “Did you come from work?” I ask.
“Yeah. I had to take off early.”
“Sorry. You should’ve let me rent a car.”
West reaches out his hand. For an instant I think he’s going to pull me into his body, and something like a collision happens inside my torso—half of me slamming on the brakes, the other half flying forward to crash into my restraint.
His fingers knock mine off the handle of my suitcase, and the next thing I know he’s heading for the truck with it.
I stand frozen, gawping at him.
Get your act together, Caroline. You can’t freak out every time he moves in your direction.
He opens the passenger-side door to stow my bag in the back of the cab. The truck is huge, the front right side violently crumpled. I hope he wasn’t driving when that happened.
By the time he emerges, I’m comparing the musculature of his back to what his shoulders felt like under my hands the last time I saw him. The shape of his calves is the same. He’s West, and he’s not-West.
He steps aside to let me in. I have to climb up to the seat. The sweltering cab smells of stale tobacco. I leave my sweater on. Even though I’m too hot, I feel weird about any form of disrobing.
I turn to grab the door handle and discover him still there, blocking me with his body.
That’s when I figure it out. It’s not his hair or his tan or his muscles that make him seem different: it’s his eyes. His expression is civil, but his eyes look like he wants to rip the world open and tear out its entrails.
“You need to eat?” he asks.
I don’t think the simmering cynical hatred I hear in his voice is directed at me. I’m pretty sure it’s directed at everything. But it sends a shiver of apprehension through me, because I’ve never heard West sound like that before.
“No, I’m good. I had dinner in Portland.”
“It’s almost three hours back to Silt.”
“I’m good,” I repeat.
He’s staring at me. I press my lips together to keep from apologizing. Sorry I came when you called me. Sorry I needed a ride from the airport. Sorry I’m here, sorry you don’t love me anymore, sorry your abusive asshole dad is dead.
My own father didn’t want me to come. At all. I had to quit my job a few weeks early and hand over almost everything I’d earned as a dental receptionist this summer to pay for the plane ticket—a move Dad called “boneheaded.”
He doesn’t trust West, and worse, he doesn’t trust me when it comes to West. Which means we argue whenever the subject comes up. We fought like cats and dogs at breakfast this morning when Dad realized he wasn’t going to be able to talk me out of this.
To make matters worse, we’re close to being ready to file the petition in my civil suit against Nate, my ex-boyfriend, for infringing my privacy and inflicting emotional distress. Dad wants me close at hand so we can read through the complaint together four thousand more times.
He’s a judge by profession, a single parent of three daughters, and a fretful micromanager by nature. Which makes him, in this situation, kind of unbearable.
I reminded him that poring endlessly over documents is what he paid our lawyer a zillion-dollar retainer for, but Dad says this is a learning experience for me. If I want to be a lawyer myself, I ought to pay attention.
I am paying attention.
I’m trying, at least. It got hard to pay attention right around the time West told me he was seeing someone else.
When he called me last night, all other thoughts flew out of my head.
The upcoming trial is important. Keeping my employment commitments is important. But West is more important. I’m not going to abandon him when he needs me.
“You don’t have to make a big fuss,” I say. “I’m just here to help.”
Without another word, he slams the door and gets behind the wheel, and we’re on our way.
I thought Eugene was a city, but after we leave the airport we’re instantly in the middle of nowhere, and that’s where we stay. It’s so green, it makes me thirsty.
West turns right, heading toward the mountains.
It’s nearly seven, so we won’t get to Silt until ten. I don’t know where I’m staying tonight.
I’m going to be sitting in this truck with West in the dark.
I take off my sweater. West fiddles with the air conditioner, reaches across me to redirect a vent, and suddenly it’s blasting in my face. My sweat-clammy skin goes cold, goose bumps and instantaneous hard nipples.
He turns the fan down.
“You’re doing landscaping?” I ask.
“Do you like it?”
The look he gives me reminds me of my sister Janelle’s cat. Janelle used to squirt it between the eyes with a water gun to keep it from jumping on her countertops, and it would glare back at her with exactly that expression of incredulous disdain.
“Sorry,” I say.
Then I try to count up how many times I’ve apologized since I walked out of the airport.
Too many. I’m letting him get to me when I promised myself on the plane I wouldn’t let anything get to me. This is a convoluted situation. Someone’s dead, guns are involved, West was torn up enough to call me—my job is to be unflappable. I’m not going to get mad at him or act heartbroken. I’m not going to moon around or cry or throw myself on him in a fit of lust. I’ll just be here, on his side.
I’ll do that because I promised him I would when he left Iowa. I made him swear to call me, and I told him he could count on me to be his friend.
He called. Here I am.
After marinating in tobacco-scented silence for a while, I find myself scanning West all over again, looking for similarities instead of differences. His ears are still too small. The scar hasn’t vanished from his eyebrow, and the other one tilts up same as always. His mouth is the same.
Always, for me, it was his mouth.
The scent coming off him is like a hot day in the deep woods—like a fresh-cut Christmas tree—but it’s not quite either of those. On the seat between us, there’s a pair of work gloves he must have tossed there. I want to pick them up, put them on, wiggle my fingers around. Instead, I look at his thigh. His faded shorts, speckled with minuscule pieces of clinging bark. His kneecap.
I look at his arm from the curve of his shoulder to the banded edge of his sleeve where the polo shirt cuts across his biceps. He doesn’t have a tan line. He must work with his shirt off, and the thought is more than I know what to do with.
The last time I saw him, we were kissing at the airport, holding each other, saying goodbye. Even though I know everything’s different now, it doesn’t entirely feel different. It’s cruel that it’s possible for him to have told me what he did and for me to still be sitting here, soaking him up.
I’m not over him. I’ve tried to reason myself into it, but I’m learning reason doesn’t have anything to do with love, and West has always made me softer than I wanted to be, weaker than was good for me.