I've been terribly busy. And this has been rumbling away in the cortex of my brain pan.
Uncle Tupelo was playing on the car stereo when she broke down, spilled the news in a choke of snot and tears.
The baby wasn’t mine.
Sudden heat flushes my cheeks and the sudden impulse is to swing a backhand at her cheek. The temptation passes and I settled on an appropriate response: I grab her upper arm, squeeze. Tight enough to mean something, light enough not to leave a bruise.
“Watch the road,” she says, wiping a sleeve across her reddened nose.
In a swell of emotions, I’ve let the car drift toward the rumble strips on the centerline. I let the car coast toward the shoulder, still seething. Sucking my teeth in an attempt to wet my throat.
“What did you say?” I croak.
She beats fists against denim thighs, her thumbs hooked into the sleeves of one of my thermal undershirts she likes to pilfer from my dresser.
“The baby, it’s not…it wasn’t yours.”
I let my fingers splay across the steering wheel, then grip tight. The leather cover lets out a squeak in protest.
“Tell me more.”
Fresh tears steamed down her cheeks, taking with them most of her mascara. She sucks back a fresh stream of mucus, hiccups.
“If it was yours, I would have kept it,” she says, defiant.
I put on the blinker, check the mirror, merge back onto the two-lane blacktop, which has faded into a sad, dingy gray.
We’re headed to her parent’s cabin. We’ve escaped the city, the clinic, with provisions, soothing music, warm clothing. I’ve shopped meticulously at the grocery, anticipating her every need; her every want.
My cheeks flush as I consider the folly.
She puts a wobbly hand on my bare forearm. Her hands are dry, hot.
The leather steering wheel cover lets out a squeak.
Back up six weeks.
Two of the worst words that can be paired in the English language.
But I love(d) her and professed support, a passionate marriage proposal, hopes for a future together. I’d not been scared, pissed. Joy vibrated in my heart.
She’s 28; I’m 48.
The pavement rumbled. The silence between us did as well.
I inhale deeply at the turnoff onto gravel.
“Whose is it?”
She’s resting her head on the cool glass; there’s been a reprieve in tears, nasal buildup. She hiccups again, as breaths gather in her chest. A fresh stream turns on, hot.
“Doesn’t matter now, does it?”
I stop a bit short, send gravel tinkling into the wheel wells.
She’s opened the door and rushes the plank door before I can turn the key in the ignition and kill the engine.
The steering wheel protests against my kung-fu death grip.
Lights slowly come on in the cabin. Smoke begins to billow from the cobble-and-concrete chimney.
With her door open, a chill fills the car. I’ve lost all cabin pressure. Decompression. It’s just as well.
Deep breaths. Several in sequence.
I toss the door open, stand, stretch. Look toward the softly lit windows.
More deep breaths.
I gather the bags, the carefully selected groceries. I finger the CD mixtape I’ve made for the occasion, which I’ve hidden in hip pocket of my sport coat.
My hand rests on a the wrought iron door handle.
I toss the door open.
She’s wrapped in a quilt that from the doorway smells slightly musty, but in a good way. There’s a hint of pine and wood smoke in the air, too.
“Are you hungry?”
She nests a little deeper in the quilt, shakes her head ever so slightly in the negative.
“Tell me when your ready…for anything,” I say, fighting back tears of my own.