I step out of the shower and press "play" on the answering machine—its red light blinks—and when I do I hear Dan say exactly this: "I hate to tell you something like this, especially on an answering machine—". I slam the "play/stop" button and the rest of his sentence stays trapped in the box. I stare at it, the box, and pick up our new kitten playing on the floor with some fuzzy thing. It hangs from one of his razor-claws as I hold him, and he ignores me, curling his little body around the fuzzy thing while twisting into a ball of head and feet and fur.
We bought him together. I had a cat before we met, and Nermal was, I think, bought for the same reason people who create step-families decide to have yet another baby: to have one of our own. Nermal symbolized our commitment to one another: "See? We'll be together at least a good fifteen to twenty years."
We've had him four days, now.
I set Nermal down and he bounces across the floor. In the spare room, where my vanity is, I blow dry my hair and run through the many things Dan could possibly hate to tell me on a machine. But there aren't many, really. There's only one.
This morning, lying half-asleep in bed and willing myself not to wake up because I'm trying to get over two weeks of a cold, I dreamed Dan sat on the couch while I kneeled in front of our DVD's, pulling one after another from the shelf and reading off titles.
"Thelma and Louise?"
And so on, until the dream ended with his saying no to Serpico. I used to dream about us tangled up in sex, laughing on a sidewalk, or riding a shining boat wing.
I've been in those relationships, the ones that progressed to that stage—when laughter had to be prompted by laugh tracks, when the only knowing looks were the kind that passed during some idiot sitcom's moment of dramatic irony, and when sex came when there were no good—or even mediocre—shows left to watch. Afterward, it was never good. When all the breathing was done and there was nothing but quiet.
I turn off the blow dryer and run my hands through my hair. Too long, and the color is growing out and this cold has changed my face. Wan. That's the best way to describe it. Pale, pasty. And my right eye is red.
I tried to look good for Dan when he called to say he was coming home for lunch, yesterday, and when he touched my arm and said I looked pretty, I thought, "We've lost something." He couldn't have thought I looked pretty—he just couldn't—and we've never lied to each other before. Our conversations have been stilted, too, even forced. In my defense, I've been drugged-up and droopy, and there's not much in your head when you're sick and sleeping most of the day, and it's hard to pay attention to the things people tell you. Interest is genuine, but enthusiasm takes too much work.
Sometimes I'm afraid this cold might be a terminal disease, and then I think it must be very easy for people to find someone new after their mate dies from a long illness. The dying one gets increasingly boring, and the healthy one is patient, patient, doing all they can, trying to understand, but by the time it's over they've forgotten any of the original interest they once had, and the ultimate loss really isn't so great. They've had months, maybe even a year, to reminisce about the past, about what the sick one used to be like, and during that time the past has become some vague memory that might come around once a year with the tulips.
I put my hair in a sloppy ponytail because it hides the roots.
Surely Dan wouldn't break up with me because of a cold.
Unless. Unless these two weeks were less a symptom of an illness than a symptom of what happens to people, to couples, over time. He sees the future and doesn't like it. I have to admit, he's not the only one to think such things, what with this distance that's been growing between us for days. I used to think Dan and I had that special something. We both thought it. We were smugly certain we had the stuff of movies, that we were a modern-day Goldie and Kurt. I even told him that he, my roommate lover, felt more like my husband than my ex-husband had.
Once or twice he asked what went wrong with the rest of them. I told him I honestly didn't know. Maybe, after this, he'll be able to tell me.
I head for the machine, then decide it would be better to get dressed, first. There's something about getting bad news naked.
Dan likes it when I wear my red pants, so I put them on for when he comes home to get his things. As I'm buttoning them I notice the sheets, twisted and rumpled. Yesterday morning, I told Dan over coffee that he seemed to touch me less, and that he'd started turning his back to me in his sleep.
"I do? I turn my back to you?" he said.
"Well, I don't know. A little."
"Did I used to not? I used to face you?"
"Well," I said, trying to laugh it off, "I guess if you were to face me lately you'd get a lot of cough spray up your nose."
"Oh, no," he said, and stroked my hair. "I don't mean to."
Later, when we smoked on the front stoop, he told me he didn't want to have to be conscious of every move and worry that each one would be falsely interpreted. Or interpreted, period.
Looking at the sheets, now, I remember that every time I woke up last night, he was either on his back, or was on his side facing me. He would even throw one of his legs over mine, or cross my chest with his arm and curl his fingers around my shoulder. Once, when I woke up to cough, he was on his side in one of those his-leg-over-mine positions, and I had to stay awake for a while just to look at him. The covers were shoved to my side, not on him at all, and the gold light from the street lamps outside fell on him so perfectly.
Last night makes me that much sadder to have to listen to the tape. It was a last-time thing, I know now. A softness to make today easier. An "I still love you, as you could tell by last night, but this just isn't going to work."
Nermal is sitting on the machine when I get to the living room. When I shoo him off with a flick of my hand, he accidentally steps on the "stop/play" button and Dan's voice goes on.
"—but, I had an engine failure and had to land in a field. I'm okay—I promise, I'm fine—but I'm at this house with these very nice people who are willing to let me stay until I can get picked up." He gives me a phone number where I can reach him, and an address where I can pick him up, but I don't hear any of it until I play the message a second time because I'm so excited. At the end, he says, "I love you."
I pick up Nermal and dance him around the living room. "Daddy loves me. He still loves me. Yes, he does!" When Nermal starts squeaking, I drop him on the couch and call the number Dan left.
A woman answers and says, when I ask for Dan, that he's out at the crash site. She gives me directions to her house, telling me to take a left at the big cow on Elkton's only corner. It's about an hour's drive, she says, and adds that she'll tell Dan I'm on my way.
After we hang up, I think about how pleasant she sounded. And how nice it is that Dan has someone so nice to let him stay in her house while he waits for me to get there.
I listen to his message again. This time, he sounds a little far off, and his "I love you" sounds suspiciously like one of those end-of-the-phone-call perfunctory I love you's. But when he talks about the "nice people" letting him stay in their house, his voice is the one I recognize as the drip-sweet pitch of affection. When I listen again, I swear I hear an echo over the "I love you," like his hand is cupped around his mouth so no one hears.
Of course, there's no reason he would do that. It's not like we live in a novel with Fabio glistening on the cover. It's not like he happened to crash-land on some farmstead owned by an old farmer and his beautiful, single, young daughter with long, blond hair and trim thighs and a lilting laugh that delights Dan to his core, the way the romance novels say it happens. It's not like she has heaving breasts.
I grab my keys and the directions and head out to the farm.
It's a beautiful day for a drive. Spring settles early in the south, and trees already blossom white and pink and grasses burst in brilliant green patches. Unfortunately, with new plant life there also seems to be new animal life, and after only a few miles I pass a dead cat, a dead dog, a dead deer, what looks like a possum, and a skunk. I make a note to tell Dan about the roadkill, and can already hear his response.
"Did you come across anything positive?"
He thinks I talk about death a lot, but really, what it is, is that when I talk about death, I'm reaffirming my appreciation for life. The animals—the skunk, the poor cat—had life whacked right out of them before they had a chance to look dead, and seeing them just reminds me to embrace what I have now, to not take it for granted. Talking about positive things, like spotted baby cows I saw sleeping in tree shade, or the pink magnolia blossoms scattered in the grass, reminds me death will wipe out the tree, the cow, Nermal . . . and that's far more negative, but he doesn't see it.
I pass a lot of farmsteads on the way to get Dan, and I wonder what the Jacobey place looks like. Will it be right on the side of the road? Far off, down a long, gravel drive? The girl on the phone did say the sign marking the road to her property has a big red bow tied around it, so the house itself must be a ways off. Just like in a book. A big green pasture, Dan walking—tall and masculine and fresh from the wreckage of his plane, a sexy scratch marking his cheek—to a solitary house on a rolling hill. He knocks on the door (using a knocker) and it opens to that young blond. Her daddy's out getting feed for the chickens and she's home all alone, and of course he can use her phone.
I don't blame him for being interested, really. I'm sure it's just a passing thing, like it was with that girl in supply where he works. I never saw her, but Dan mentioned her once or twice. Called her the girl with the big eyes. Left out, I sensed, was the word "beautiful." He told me, when I asked, that she had a boyfriend, so at least that was that.
This girl, the farm girl, lives too far away for it to be anything substantial.
She's probably very smart, because Dan doesn't have much tolerance for women who aren't. That he flies will probably impress her. I've known Dan forever, since he first had a thought about flying, so it doesn't get me excited the way it used to. Everyone wants to think of themselves as exciting, though, so this woman will do a lot more for him than I do. And I'm sure she's much more interesting than I've been, because of the sickness, so he'll find her wide-eyed, gaspingly inquisitive conversation refreshing.
My breathing gets shaky and I can't help picturing Dan and the blond girl, who's probably about twenty, walking together through the field to look at his plane. Her wit and her dazzle—so unlikely in a girl living on a farm's relative seclusion—enamor Dan, as does her healthy flush that comes from all the good milk and fresh meat and vegetables growing out in her back yard.
I find the road sign with the red bow and turn left onto a gravel path. Rocks crunch under my tires and I wish they were quiet so I could sneak up. When I park, I brace myself for the intimate look that will pass between Dan and his newfound love, the sad look she'll give me. I use an old piece of paper from the bag hanging off the gear shift to blow my nose, and the edge slices my nostril, damn it, so I check the mirror, but there's not much blood. My eyes look better, today. Maybe it was good to get out of the house.
I open the door and try not to play back his message in my head, because every time I do it sounds less and less like him. I try not to remember how he's stopped really looking at me, how much shorter his hugs are getting, and that kisses just don't feel the same.
The Jacobey front door is glass, and before I knock I see a tinted version of Dan at the far end of the room. He smiles when he sees me, and says, "There she is." He walks to the door and opens it, invites me in. The first thing I notice is that there's a lot of oak, and many duck paintings, some framed by cut-out hearts, hang on the wall.
She sits on the couch, only she's not twenty. Maybe thirty. And not Dan's type. She's a little heavy—not in a bad way, just not like I pictured; not that it means anything, because sometimes I think I'm too skinny for Dan, and that he might like being with someone whose bones he can't feel—and her hair, dull brown, falls in short waves to her earlobes. A baby gurgles on her lap and the man sitting beside her looks like he could be her father, but she introduces him almost immediately as her father in-law. Her husband took the truck into town to run errands.
"You want to come see the plane?" Dan says.
The woman and the old man smile, then start talking about what to fix for dinner.
Dan and I walk out together. A big dog yaps behind a wire fence and, beyond that, fields alive with crops spread for acres and end in trees. I imagine him walking with the girl. Maybe she brought her baby to look at the plane. Dan's always been so friendly, and how nice of him to show her the wreckage—which I now see off in the distance at the treeline, the Cessna's nose tucked in branches—and there's no way, no way he fell for her. I take a breath and the air smells like hay.
"You must have been worried," he says, looking down at me. "It's okay. I'm not hurt, or anything. You can hug me."
So I do. I hug him so tight I hear him wheezing.