Laura Long is the author of Imagine a Door: Poems (Turning Point). She has fiction forthcoming in Shenandoah and poetry in 32 Poems. She teaches at Lynchburg College in Virginia, and was born and raised in Upshur County, West Virginia.
That November evening, Erica tasted onion soup in her kitchen and remembered her honeymoon two years ago. She and Sam had flown--her first plane ride--to Mexico and jounced on an old blue bus to Isla de las Mujeres. There they drank milk from coconuts that fell with soft thuds in the sand, and strolled under clicking palms beside a sea that lapped turquoise over their toes. When Sam floated in the salt-heavy water, eyes closed above a dreamy smile, Erica thought, I don't know him. The next day they giggled in bed and waltzed naked around their room, perched on stilts above the Caribbean. Sharp-winged terns dropped like stones into the sea and rose flapping, spraying light into light.
Now they lived in Morgantown, West Virginia, where they had met at the University. The old house where they had an apartment was part of an enormous maze of old homes stubbornly dug into a steep mountainside. Since graduating from college a year and a half ago, Erica had wanted to live somewhere different. "Of course you do," one of her aunts had laughed. "Wanting to leave is part of being a West-by-god Virginian. Even our state song is about leaving and pining to come back: 'If o'er sea or land I roam, still I think of happy home, and my friends among those West Virginia hills.' Honey, you'll move to a city or some flat land, and wind up homesick."
Still. She was 24 and had hardly ever been out of these hills. Today she had surfed the websites of restaurants in Los Angeles, Miami, and the Bahamas. She was a waitress, so she could get a job almost anywhere, right? Sam didn't want to leave. He was a slow-moving bear--how comforting that had been when she was a freaked-out junior on the edge of flunking out. Now he was mired in writing his Master's thesis on the Battle of Waterloo. That or his day job was scrambling his brain. All day he drove a taxi through these crooked streets and up into the hills.
"It's ready," Erica called to Sam and she carried bowls of soup into the dining room. Something was odd, was off, as if a piece of furniture had been moved. She looked down the open room that ran the length of the house. In the middle of this length was a black fireplace they couldn't use because the landlord had said the chimney might catch fire. Now the fireplace gazed at her with disappointment, remembering fires it used to have, was meant to have.
No, nothing was awry but something was different: the huge old windows were black instead of soft with evening light. "Look," Erica said when Sam walked in and kissed her neck. She pointed to the nearest window. The merged shape of the two of them glinted there, ghost-pale yet definite.
"The time changed. It's dark early now." Sam said. They sat down, bowls of soup, plates of spaghetti, and a basket of bread between them. "We're supposed to get a killing frost tomorrow." He ate with the concentration of a weary man. He rhythmically ate the soup, then dug into the spaghetti, plummy with tomatoes.
She twirled her fork. "I took this sauce out of the freezer today. Remember, I made it in August?"
She had picked up a crate of tomatoes cheap from a roadside stand. The ripe tomatoes were bruised and cracking, oozing with sweet juice, and needed to be cut and cooked right away. She'd simmered them all the next day in two big pots. That seemed far away now, a day when she knew exactly what life was asking of her.
"I've got to find another job. I don't want to drive a taxi in the ice and snow." Sam's eyes skittered into hers and away. His left forearm was still slightly tanned from being angled out the taxi window all summer and fall. He used to spend every evening in his study, a tiny back room off the kitchen. His stacks of books went straight up to the low, angled ceiling, the spines spilling letters in prim little banners. For the last few weeks, his thesis had sat in several heaps on the desk, untouched.
Erica twirled and untwirled her spaghetti. One afternoon this past summer she had ridden downtown on her bike and seen Sam parked in front of the courthouse, where he waited for dispatches. It seemed he wasn't her 26-year-old husband, or a student stranded within a Master's thesis on the Battle of Waterloo. He was an anonymous taxi driver submerged in the shadow of a big yellow taxi.
He hadn't seen her. He ignored the coal trucks that heaved by, the pigeons flapping above the courthouse square, and the old men on benches who played dominoes, and talked about the good war and the new mayor in rumpled old-men voices. Unlike the other two taxi driver parked there, Sam didn't read a newspaper. He read a thick, hardbound book propped on the steering wheel.
She knew the book was War and Peace, and then he was her Sam again. He saw wars as terrible events, usually bumbled into by power-crazed rulers. He had tried to convince his little brother not to join the Army, but now the boy--who joined because he needed a job--was at Fort Hood, Texas, awaiting deployment to Afghanistan. But Sam was intrigued, even obsessed, by Napoleon and the thousands of lives he had commanded into death. "A lot of those men," he once told Erica, "died for love. Real loyalty is the same thing as love."
Did some of the men following Napoleon die for love? She couldn't agree. Surely loyalty wasn't the same thing as love. Love had to be more, somehow. But every time she tried to figure out if loyalty could rise to the level of love (loyalty was generous, hopeful, idealistic, blind), her mind went doodling down paths that weren't argument or answer, till finally there was no path at all.
After supper Erica climbed on the bed to write a card to a college buddy who had just gotten married. Sam washed the dishes. Erica began, "I hope. . ." What should she hope for her newlywed friend? Health and wealth? Moony-spoony nights? Adorable puppies and babies drooling in her Facebook albums?
Erica's mother had wanted her to be beautiful and ladylike (Erica refused to make an effort), major in business (not sociology), become a manager and rise in the ranks of one company or another (not rise from part-time to full-time waitress), and find an excellent husband. At 21, Erica had married a poor man without ambition (so her mother described Sam, after which mother and daughter didn't speak for several months). "Money doesn't matter now, but it will later," her mother had argued before the wedding. Now her mother visited twice a year from her new home in Florida, called Sam "Bob," and bought Erica shoes and a haircut. Afterwards, Erica and Sam vied with each other for the best imitation of the mother's dismay. "Darling, let's measure these windows for curtains so you can take down those tacked-up bedspreads."
Now Sam stretched out on the couch that served as most of their living room furniture and unfolded the Sunday paper. The "Help Wanted" pages crackled as he shook them open. He murmured, "Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief."
Erica scrawled on the card, "Wishing you everything--". She paused and chewed on the pen tip, then finished "you want." She signed the card for her and Sam, and hurried it into an envelope, then sprawled on the bed.
She knew Sam's recurring dreams about a black dog with blood on its teeth, and he knew about her childhood rage at her mother's strict diets and constant irritation that Erica was plump. Erica trimmed the hair that curled behind Sam's ears, and he rubbed her legs with almond oil. Every week the limbs of their clothes became mysteriously entangled in the laundry and clung together with a dim-witted insistence.
A moth flittered against the window beside the bed. Havoc, their cat, batted her claws against the glass, frantic. Erica stroked her spine to soothe her. But the cat meowed and darted her paws up toward the lone, light-ditzy moth. In summer, moths by the dozens twirled around the porch lights. Soon snow flakes would twirl down, melt against the window. Erica thought again of palm fronds and tern wings splintering the light.
Sam came over and lifted Havoc into his arms, chanted into her eyes, "Butcher, baker, candlestick maker." Havoc purred with instant enthusiasm.
Erica pressed her face to the pane, brightly chill as water. Leaves covered the garden. In the steam of summer, she and Sam had picked frilled lettuces and fat bell peppers. This is an odd cathedral, Erica thought once when she cut the top off a pepper. The air inside is so still.
Erica clenched her fists. She wanted to move to a place where all year round cantaloupe swelled into splendid balls. Surely a tropic of cornucopia existed. People were living there right this minute, humming to themselves. The sun heated the backs of their necks. Sweat trickled into their eyelashes, and they headed toward the house to pump water up out of the earth's cool depths. Frost was a rumor, as remote as the rings of Saturn.
With Havoc curled up on the couch next to his head, Sam turned back to the want ads, found the first page. "Accountant, advertising, auto mechanic . . ."
Erica wondered when she would tell him. Maybe he already suspected? And how could she convince him it wasn't his fault?
She had to tell him: she was going away though she couldn't explain why. She would go somewhere else, find out who she was besides someone married to a kind man. But she would not be a coward who left a note.
Sam folded the newspaper, got up, and opened the closet. He heaved her large suitcase down. It thumped on the bare floor. "What?" She gasped and sat up.
He opened the suitcase. "I reckon it's time to procure our winter provisions." He lifted out lumpy sweaters, floppy turtlenecks, and flannel sheets scattered with silhouettes of dancing bears. She sorted the socks from the mittens. He pulled t-shirts and shorts from the dresser's deep drawers and fitted them into the suitcase. A bikini she'd worn on their honeymoon slipped to the floor and she picked up the two pieces, splashes of scarlet and gold. She expected them to burn her fingers but they were cool, like limp fish.
Sam refolded the winter clothes and stacked them in the drawers. He had been the oldest of four kids, and took care of them all while his single mom worked two jobs. He didn't think twice about folding clothes.
The suitcase loudly snapped shut. Sam sat back on his heels. Erica felt his eyes resting on her. "I'm leaving you," she wanted to blurt. And then she'd explain: "Loyalty isn't the same thing as love--not that I know what either one is." But that was no explanation at all.
She saw herself in his mind in the future. The word "Erica" would translate into a blot, a fool, a heartbreaker. She would call him at midnight crying and get his voice mail. There was no right road for her, no battle to follow, only a crooked path. She opened her mouth. The room grew quiet, as if the killing frost had come and was long forgotten, because now the world was full of snow.