In less than an hour, the town of Dunville announced itself with the sign, "It Pays to Do Business in Dunville!" overgrown with jimson weed.
We drove up a long dirt driveway and parked in front of my friend Ruthie's house, painted a gingerbread brown. When I turned off the ignition, whatever was in me sputtered out, too. We trudged up the stairs, my hands strapped to bags. Daniel hugged my friend, and wiggled his fingers under the chin of her deluxe cat.
Ruthie's parents and her seven siblings lived next door. They immediately invited us over for dinner. But while she was in the bathroom, I whispered to Daniel,
"I don't know why, but I'm suddenly feeling really drained. And not that great. I just kind of want to sleep. I don't know about dinner."
He looked at me. "Stay and sleep."
"But you'll be alone."
"That's all right," said Daniel. "Just rest. I'm calling this one."
"Thanks, Dan; you're the best. I know you're tired, too."
He turned around again. "Can I just make one request?"
"That we find our bed and breakfasts tonight and plan our trip?"
"Yeah, I know," my chest suddenly feeling hot. "I know I dropped the ball on that one. We'll do it tonight, I promise. We'll get our whole trip sorted."
"Okay, honey. Have a good sleep."
But when they went next door, I pulled my computer onto the kitchen table. And with the blue light scoring my face, I began scrolling. Culling, carding.
Calculating: cabins, narrow bunks, plush beds, outhouses, lofts, seaside, island, forest, shared.
No running water -- no. One hundred and sixty dollars -- no. Click.
Two hours of wending and weeding, until finally I had extracted twelve options. Twelve tabs, all winnowed and sifted. Well, maybe more brassy than gold, but they were fine enough. Just then, Daniel opened the slider door.
"Hey, you." I looked up.
"Are you really tired? I know you were socially representing us both. And I'm so grateful for that."
"Oh, I'm knackered. But I come bearing good tidings."
"Ruth's mother asked if you and I wanted to see Cape Cod, and I said we had waited too long and there were no vacancies anywhere. And so she said we should use their Cape house."
"I would never have dared to ask that. So we can stay with my cousins in Maine, and then go down the Cape, and that means we only have to pick one more place. This is going to be so simple. Wait, look, I'll show you what I did." I rotated my laptop towards him.
"Oh," he said.
"I pared them all down for you. So you can look them over and choose whichever one you want. It's all up to you."
I stood, and Daniel eased himself into the chair.
"And I'd be happy with any one of them."
He leaned forward, putting his prickly chin on his thin palm, and touched the laptop mouse pad. He started reading. I watched him for a bit, and then backed off.
"Not just now," he said into his hand.
I turned on the stove burner. I pulled open the tea drawer, and picked out a bag of Luscious Lemon. I glanced over at him.
He was exiting out of my options. Loosening their codes into cyberspace, unmooring my choices one by one.
"You don't like any of them so far?" I smiled from the kitchen.
"Mm," into his hand. "I just haven't seen any that resonate with me yet."
"Yeah, okay. That's fine."
I dipped my tea bag in and out of the scathing water. I watched his pupils, flickering back and forth. His eyes were ferocious: an electric blue. The trick of the computer screen, I thought. Feral and mechanical.
"Are there too many to look at? I guess I could have pared them down more. Maybe I should have pared them down more."
Still mouthing into his fingers: "There aren't too many. I don't know, they're just not really jumping out at me. Not one is saying, 'Yes, this is it. Pick me. I'm the place.'"
"I know. That's important," pressing the back of a spoon into the tea bag.
-- Glittering, cutting coded ropes.
I said, "Because you've got to have that feeling. You want to know it when you see it."
His clicking was quieting. Snip, slow snip. His eyes were looking elsewhere.
Suddenly I said, "You know what, let's not figure it out tonight." I dumped my tea bag into the trash can. "We've got time. We can look at it tomorrow."
"Yeah, I'm going to take a break for a few minutes." He pushed back his chair.
"But, honestly. We can figure it out tomorrow. Those places up north won't get filled up."
Daniel left the laptop and walked down the hallway. My mug clanked on the table, and I saw that he had only four tabs left.
Then I had an idea, and images began dancing through my mind. Thick curly fries. Wild grapes. Peppercorn. My childhood window, out from which I leaned -- greened -- dreamed. I opened a new tab.
In a few minutes, I entered the bedroom, carrying my laptop. I was feeling tender, fertile. Suddenly shy.
My eyes skirted him as I sat down on the bed. "I had another idea, Danny, and you can tell me what you think." I set my laptop on my knees. It slid sideways. "I was thinking maybe we could stay at a bed and breakfast in the town I grew up in." I saw, in my mind, the carving I had made in the aspen tree. . . the gourds that had rotted in the garden. . . the doghouse where spiders caroused. And, oh, my Willow Gardens. Forest houses with bark shelves, full of nuts for imaginary guests. My golden-haired characters who kissed their knights under bowers. "Sure, it'd be twenty minutes from where my parents live now, so it might feel pointless in that sense, but it would give us the chance to explore my hometown and I could show it to you. And it might be relaxing."
"No," he said, "that doesn't feel exciting. That does feel a bit pointless."
"Oh, okay. Yeah, I understand. Yeah, that's fine." I got off the bed. I left my laptop behind me. "I was thinking about that fact, too. Well, I'm going to go brush my teeth. And then I think I'm going to go to bed."
I walked into the kitchen, to find Ruthie sitting with her Latin book in front of her. "How's Naomi doing with eating these days?" I took down a jar of peanut butter. "Now that she's had the puppies, is she eating any better?"
My images had faded, shaded, crinkled into little balls, all foiled, and were stinging. They stung me over and over, like bald faced hornets. In the neck.
"She's eating a bit better now," said Ruthie, smiling up at me. "We tried giving her pumpkin puree."
"Wait, really? I didn't know dogs ate that. Dogs can eat pumpkin?"
"Well, yes, if it's cooked. Or canned. But that usually means it's cooked --"
While she talked, I cracked a banana off the bunch, and ate it with the peanut butter. Resentment and frustration were roiling in me. Well, what was I supposed to do? This was impossible. He was impossible. Impossible to please.
Afterwards I tossed away the banana peel and walked back into the bedroom to retrieve my pajamas. Daniel was staring at my computer screen, actively scrolling.
"Finding anything?" I asked casually.
"Oh, I found something lovely. Tell me what you think about this one, Sarah. It's up in Maine." He turned the laptop towards me. "I think it might be perfect."
I glanced at it.
"Oh, no, I saw that one earlier." I bent down to unzip my duffel bag. "I didn't select it because it said there was no heat."
He twisted the laptop back around. "Sarah. It's a cabin. There's likely going to be no heat in any cabin we go to. And it's summer time. I'm sure they'll have sleeping bags. And maybe if find wool blankets. . ."
"Yeah, but sometimes it gets really cold at night. And I don't know, I just haven't been feeling very well lately. And I'm worried, if I have a cold, that I'll get even more sick."
Click. Daniel exited out of the screen and closed the laptop shortly. "No cabin."
"Sorry. I'm just -- I'm on the fence."
"No, being cold is obviously not going to work if you're not feeling well."
"Well, I just wasn't sure." I paused. "Thanks for looking, though."
The lamp next to the table was turning him into a blur of orange and indigo. I thought maybe he touched the space between his eyes. He had pressed his other hand tight under his armpit. "-- I guess we'll figure it out tomorrow."
"Yeah, exactly. When we're fresher. I think it's been a long day for both of us -- I worked and you came back from Boston. We're probably really need to sleep."
"And tomorrow will be fine."
I went into the bathroom to change.
When I returned, I put my wadded-up clothes in my bag. Daniel was maybe wrapping wires. Or something. His spirit seemed pinched. I glanced at him, and he was tight-lipped.
"I'm sorry again about all the confusion."
"I just have to ask you, Sarah. Why didn't you say straight-out you didn't want to stay in that cabin? You never say how you feel."
My soul pinwheeled. "But I did say how I feel," pleasantly. "I just said I was feeling tired and not really good these days." I scooped up my jeans again and started folding them. "And I'm worried about getting sick. But I'm not really sure. Any other time, I'd be up for an adventure like that." I fit the jeans back into the bag. "I actually like roughing it. But I'm just worried about getting a cold." Then I took out my t-shirt. Shook it. "But it feels all up in the air. I didn't want to rule the option out just yet."
I dropped the folded t-shirt in the bag.
I went into the bathroom. I brushed my teeth. I spat in the sink and rinsed my mouth. Then I looked at myself in the mirror. Pressed my hands into the enamel counter. I gripped the edges.
Then I returned.
"So tired," I said, spreading a fluffy blanket over the mattress.
"Me, too." He was already under the covers.
Ruthie had given us the back room, with a bed as big as a sleigh. The imposing bed frame was a polished cherry wood, with a comforter that was paisley like one of Daniel's shirts.
I climbed onto the mattress and he turned off the light. Then the blackness swallowed us whole.
I stood again. "I like an open window." I stumbled in the dark, pulled it up. "I like to sleep with the fresh air." Then I added, "Is that okay with you?"
It took him a moment to respond. "That's fine."
"I can close it if you want --"
"No, it's fine."
I crawled back under the comforter. Made myself still and small. And waited -- for what, I didn't know. I felt a violet sensitivity in the room. And in the darkness, the thing that was cold. Whatever it was eventually pried itself into my mouth, climbed down, and got stuck in my throat.
I said in the tiniest of voices,
"Danny, why are you angry at me?"
He answered in an even smaller voice, "I don't actually know."
Minutes passed, without either one of us stirring. We could have passed as seeds, sleeping underground.
He spoke. Like a crocus crowning -- blueing through the soil. "I just feel like you left me out entirely."
"Left you --"
"I wanted this to be a choice we made together."
"But it was. I just thought I was making the choice easier for you."
"No. It made me feel like my voice didn't matter at all."
"Oh, no. That wasn't what I meant to do."
I scooped out an opening in the conversation. But he said nothing.
"I really didn't mean to make you feel like your opinion didn't matter. Really."
I could feel his body like a lake next to me. Like a sheet in winter, silent. No electrical storm from moving blankets -- flashes of green. Only cimmerian.
So I put my hand up and skated my fingers along the glossy headboard. "Do you remember when we were messaging each other about places to stay? I wrote to you, 'You know what, I'm just going to give up the idea that it has to be perfect. It doesn't have to be, right?' And you actually wrote back, 'No, I want it to be perfect.'"
"No, I couldn't have. Did I really?"
"But I know if you had heard my voice in person, you would have realized how worried I was."
"Well, I'm sorry about that, Sarah."
"S'alright. And I'm sorry, too." I tried to look over at him again. Only a mirage: clouds of red and moving mud. "It was exactly like the basement scenario. If you had done either of those things for me, I would have been relieved. So I assumed it would be received the same way."
"Sometimes I forget to look at things from other people's perspective."
"Well," said Daniel, and finally I saw a flash of green as he pulled at a fleece blanket, "I'm glad we talked."
"Me, too. Well, goodnight. I suppose I'll try to go to sleep now."
"Sleep well -- honey."
I turned away from him and curled up into a small hard ball.
I could hear the trills of frogs, rattling somewhere outside, clinging to trees with their splayed floppy feet. A puff of breeze came into the room, and banged the blinds against the window. Finally I fell asleep.
When I woke up, the blinds were still fretting against the window. I saw the grayness of the day behind the leaves. I lay awake, not moving. I could hear him shifting around on his side of the bed, pattering on his phone. The covers were like a wall between us, a barrier hiding my body from him, and I pretended I was still asleep.
Finally I couldn't help shifting. Against my will, the duvet swelled like a wave and crinkled, and Daniel knew I was awake. I could hear him turn off his phone, gently but conclusively.
I didn't look at him, but I said, "Good morning, dear."
And from his side of the bed, I heard, "Can we talk?"
Suddenly all the pointy icicles, the little beasties, the hobgoblins and clawed things, clambered up the staircase of my throat and burst out. They sailed out of me in an exhalation.
The air was long and smooth.
"Oh, thank you! Thank you. Thank you for saying that. I was just lying here, trying to think of how to get through today. Trying to figure out I could manipulate things to bring us back. And how to pretend like everything was okay. But thank you so much for acknowledging that things aren't okay."
"Something's wrong and I don't know what yet. But you know what I've been thinking? That our honeymoon phase is over."
"I was thinking the exact same thing! In the bathroom brushing my teeth last night, I said to myself, 'Our honeymoon is over'!"
"Sarah, I was actually thinking we weren't going to make it."
I turned over to him. "Believe it or not, I questioned it. I was thinking, 'I know this happens to others. But I can't believe it's happening to us.'"
"It would be the split of the century."
"Of the millennium."
We started laughing. It began as nervous laughter and then turned robust -- rapier thrusts. Aye, and aye again, we laughed. "Those words just sound preposterous," I choked, "when said aloud," and the laughter was our jack-o-lantern, which we were lighting furiously to blaze away the ghouls. Yes, yes. You skeletons are thin, you ghouls are transparent nothings. Waifs. Fools, foul.
"But you know what," I gasped, "the honeymoon phase is two years. So we're actually safely past that period."
"If we've gone this far, we're good."
"Exactly; that's right."
I coughed and stopped laughing. Then I studied the ceiling. The fan was sort of a brown starfish.
". . . I actually wonder, Dan, if I put too many expectations at the start of our trip. On you coming to America."
"Me, too. I thought I would, I don't know." He hesitated. "Save you."
"We're soulmates and you're my lighthouse. So I thought I was going to be instantly happy when you arrived. And forget all about the break up."
"I sensed that -- and then I felt your disappointment when it didn't happen. Like I had failed you."
I rubbed my hand across my mouth. "I was disappointed. But it wasn't because you failed me -- I was let down by my own expectations. Unrealistic ones." I readjusted my head on the pillow. "I really hope it helps that I admitted that. I'm only saying it to confirm your perception."
"It does help."
"And, Sarah, I expected more from you, too."
I cringed. "Ecstasy, I know. But I couldn't give it. However much I wanted to be jumping all over the place."
His voice became eggshells.
"Even at the airport I felt your disappointment."
"Oh, no. No! I wasn't disappointed then. You should've seen me the day before. I was just a zombie."
. . . The day before Daniel arrived, I had a day off from work. I called Ruthie and we decided to meet at Old Sturbridge Village. It was a historical exhibit far away from me. While I was driving, my motor cortex jerked and tugged at my foot and hands. Tap on break. Adjust to left. Turn signal. Ease over. Speed up. The sun on the hood was painful.
And while I was driving, my phone dinged.
I saw the text at a red light. "I got out of the hospital early, so I went to the pet store to cheer myself up. I watched the puppies getting their baths. I highly recommend it."
And that was it -- with a smiley face. It was the first text my ex had sent me since we had broken up. The rest of the drive I chewed my knuckle so hard I had teeth marks on my skin when I arrived.
I located Ruthie, and we walked through the village, along dirt carriageways, flapping our t-shirts away from our skin. "I should have brought sunscreen," I said. Reenactors ambled past us in stout boots. They wore whale-bone corsets, roomy sleeves, and high waists. Their dresses were made of checkered cotton.
We stopped to watch women dying wool outside a farmhouse. On the ground were baskets of raw wool, and baskets of wild harvest. Goldenrod, pokeberries, onions.
A fire popped under a brass cauldron. The women stirred the water with hickory sticks. Smoke went against their legs, caught in the fiber of their skirts. They picked up onions from a basket, onions with lacquered skins. When those skins were peeled and boiled, they looked like floating cellophane. Like oiled paper. And then the water pinnacled into a butternut color.
Ruthie and I went into the colonial restaurant and we ate corn bread and clam chowder. I said sorry. Sorry I was a shell. An enervating companion.
It's okay. It's okay.
We kept walking, past the schoolhouse. Past a potter's kiln. Blacksmith shop. Then we saw a farmhouse sitting on a knoll. The meadows spreading around it were benevolent and sun-drenched.
Inside, its kitchen was painted the color of dillweed, or maybe sage. That room had always felt womb-like to me. When I was a child, I used to pretend it was my kitchen, inside my own home. No, I still made believe.
We stood watching a young woman, behind a table, scooping her hands into a bowl full of curds. Her fingers scraped and pinched, scooped and pinched, and I could smell the sourness in the air. An open fire crackled behind her, and flies lighted on the rim of the bowl. There were too many for her to swat away. Outside the narrow windows, aspens shimmered. Linden trees swayed in the breeze. There was a heaviness there -- a churning slowness that was rhythmic and hypnotic. A fly brushed my face and oxen lowed in the in the farmyard outside, but quietly. In the kitchen there was just the squish-pinch, and the fire's crack, and the leaking drops of whey, dripping through the cheesecloth. Plip, plop. Caught in the bowl below. I saw that the liquid was translucent: yellow as a mother's milk.
Later, I sat on a stone wall, pulling my shirt once again away from my skin. A chicken dodged my foot, and my entire body was moist. I took out my phone and started typing. "Well, I guess I did a similar thing," I responded. "I watched cheese being made. . ."
"Oh, Sarah." Daniel reached out to me. "I have given you so little compassion these past days. No, I gave you nothing."
I allowed myself to be held by him. "You crossed an ocean, dearest. You're jet-lagged. You're in a new culture and that's kerflummoxing for anyone. I was insecure every single time I stayed at someone's house in Europe, and tried to double-check that they really wanted me there. And I gave you no reassurance these past few days. It wasn't my intention, but I'm really sorry."
"And I should have given you sympathy for what you're going through. But I was the opposite of sympathetic. I was atrocious."
"No, no. It was understandable." I brushed his forearm with my fingertips. It was like a field: streaks of grass. "We were both asking too much of each other. This is what I think we're learning -- our friendship is miraculous. And it's also human."
"Our love can circumnavigate galaxies, but it does have limitations. I couldn't be ecstatic however much I wanted to, and you couldn't pull me out of my dark hole, however much you wanted to. I needed to lift myself out."
"This is really good we're saying all this, Sarah."
"It's really good. We've aired our expectations, so now we can readjust them."
"I think my biggest mistake was in assuming you could go from zero to ten. I forgot we had to bring you back up to zero first." He said tenderly, "We are going to bring you to zero, Sarah."
I put my palm over his chest.
"And we are going to have a clean slate, fresh as snow, from now on. I make a solemn vow only to give you the best of me. Because you are my friend and you deserve no less."
"Eh." I plucked his shirt. "Naw, we'll probably splatter on each other some other time. So we don't need to make any big promises."
But he placed his palm over my hand, and held it to his chest. "I am supposed to guard your heart. To give you softness. Kindness. To build you up. No, don't say anything else. You're not allowed to be easy on me right now."
"But I want to be." I wiggled my nose into his arm. "My Danny Pop."
"I just need to know one thing. I don't deserve it, but do you forgive me?"
"For what? For nothing. There is nothing to forgive."
"No, don't do that."
"Don't do what?"
"I need you to be angry at me."
I poked his elbow. "What, to assuage your guilt?"
"It will be for you, too."
"Sorry, no. Can't do."
"You can, and you should. Tell me how I made you feel, in detail. Tell me how exactly how it felt, to be treated this way by me."
Suddenly my periphery shuttered in. The colors of the room kaleidoscoped; the bed tilted.
"I have been telling you."
"You haven't. You've been sympathizing with me."
"All right." My voice floated down to the lowest decibel. "Your anger unsettled me." The room righted itself. "It hurt me. I was wishing for more indulgence. I do forgive you," I whispered.
Out the window, the sky was cotton-mouthed gray. It looked like it might spit.
"This is one of your silver days," I mused.
"You want to hear," he suddenly said, "evidence that I still loved you last night?"
"What was that?"
"In the middle of the night I woke up and wanted to close the window, but I thought, 'No, Sarah likes it open,' and left it open."
He sighed. Like his sigh came from the cellar root, from heavy baskets of bread and winter turnips. Larder for the tough times.
I said, "You. . ."
He reached out and his fingers brushed my face. Down from the hill under my eye, to my teacup jawbone. Leaving a love-trace down my skin.
"You are my stardust. . ." he thought -- "glazed bird of paradise."
I inhaled. I shrugged myself under the comforter, closer.
"We delved so deep," he said, "and we kept uncovering more. I've never had a talk like this before, Sarah, ever. We need to name it."
"This. This thing."
"No, we shouldn't give it that dignity or honor. Or make it noteworthy."
"I'm thinking the Contentious Chasm."
"Wait, wait. How about The Great Debacle of Two-Thousand and Sixteen?"
"Or how about The Rift of the Twenty-First Century!"
"Oh, Sarah, I love you." He was stroking my hair. "Need you. Bless you. Cherish you."
"Are there any more verbs left?" I murmured, eyes closed.
"Honor you, revere you. Adore you."
His stomach burbled.
"We're probably both ravenous after that. Oh, fine, stomachs." I gave a cavernous yawn. I pulled my head away from Daniel. I moved, a slow-thrash, a slog of sleepiness. Honey molasses. I felt contented, empty. It was like that strange feeling, both safe and scrubbed too raw, after an athletically-hard cry.
"I say we have the taking of a toast and tea."
"Please -- tea and oranges that came all the way from China."
The comforter came off. We pulled it back with a sudden finality, and as our warm air exhaled, the coolness from the window rushed across my body. The morning air was braided with birdsong.