We ate our breakfast, and Ruthie asked, "Want to see the puppies?"
We went next door, and she took us upstairs to a small room with a crackling fire.
The nest was an elevated box, covered with dry shavings.
Naomi, the cavalier spaniel, stood up and began to wag herself back and forth: her teats were swollen and jiggling, the silk under her belly dripping with milk.
"Three females," I told Daniel. "They were born on my birthday, so their names are Sarah, Bethany, and Theresa."
"No." I picked up a black puppy and put her milky face against mine. She was three weeks old, and her breath smelled like cauliflowers. With the tip of my finger I rubbed the nub of her skull. Her sides were fatty, her paws limp.
Then Daniel picked up a blenheim, who puddled in his hands, drooping her tail over the side of his palm. Her coat was rumply, and he brought her up to his face.
I wanted to take a picture, to keep him forever with his nose against her fur. I was poppled all over with love. His hair was almost the color of a blenheim, too.
"Sarah," he said, putting the puppy down, her legs crumpling underneath her, "would you indulge a food run next?"
Daniel shops like an Irishman: in short bursts, usually daily. In his village, we would bike to the shop and buy single items. An orange. A bag of crisps. A jar of pesto. Frequently a package of rashers. We would return with our bike frames misty, the baskets holding our bags.
"Only women's bikes have the basket," he told me once, teetering along, "so it's a comfort challenge for me to go for messages. But when people stare at me, I see it as a chance to look them straight in the eye and laugh."
Outside Market Basket, he asked, "So what do Americans call these trolleys again? Oh, wait, no, let me guess. Carriages."
"Also carts," said Ruthie.
"But wait, they're not chained together. You don't need a -- penny -- to free them?"
"No," I laughed, pulling out a cart to the cascading shiver of metal, "we don't do that."
Daniel scavenged for his sweets, his chicken, and baguettes. Then, while waiting in line, he loaded everything into my arms and ran to find milk for his tea.
"He will die otherwise." I looked at Ruthie. "You think I'm joking."
He returned and we placed our groceries on the conveyor belt. Then Daniel started unloading the cart of the woman behind him.
"Well, thank you." She was wearing glasses, the beads dangling on her shoulders. "Well, aren't you a sweetheart."
Daniel put a jar of peanut butter on the belt, and the woman asked about his accent.
"I knew it," banging her cart handle. "You have the map of Ireland all over your face. I've always wanted to go to the Emerald Isle. But I'm getting too old."
"You're not old."
"No, you can't be." I pulled out my wallet. "There is no way."
"Well, close enough. I was born in 1950."
"So you're six --" The cashier rang up the chicken. "Sixty-six." She slid the chicken down. "You know, I'm a quarter Irish myself. But you can't tell because of my last name." She tapped her badge, and her nails were painted neon blue. It read, Nina First Year.
"Charmed to meet you, Nina."
"Nina First Year," entering in a code for his baguettes. "I'm Native American."
"I don't buy it," said Daniel.
"Oh, what?" I almost dropped my debit card. "No, I bought it. I believed you completely!"
And that's when I noticed it again: the lights surrounding us. The crinkling spirals of laughter, those pirouettes of wings.
"Well, I knew it wasn't her last name," said the woman behind us. "The name tags say how many years they've been working here."
Other shoppers were turning around. Ruthie was watching us with a smile, as we gathered our plastic bags.
"I feel like I've met a friend," said the woman. "God bless the rest of your time in America. -- What is your name?"
That night, he ate a package of gummy bears and we watched a movie. When it was over, he opened his laptop and started playing Cher music. And I danced. I danced over to him, danced around him. Castaneting my hands, all sugar and spice.
I spun, and happened to look back into the living room. I saw that Ruthie was curled up on the couch. Her spirit was starchy. Her body wasn't moving.
I stopped the music. "Oh, dear. Okay." I went over and sat on the arm of the couch. "Hug or no hug?"
She moved her body and I dropped behind her, putting my arms around her back, trying to be a bark -- a cradle -- something stable.
Daniel closed his laptop with a soft clap. He walked into the room, approaching us. "What's wrong?"
"The anxiety," answered Ruthie.
He cursed, and it was a caress. "You poor lamb. May I join the cuddle puddle?" -- Except he says puddle like poodle, an occasional slip into a Wexford accent.
Ruthie closed her eyes and nodded. Her cheeks were ruddy.
I said, "It will be a Ruthie sandwich," against her shoulder.
"I didn't want to just dive in." Daniel eased himself onto the couch. "Poor pet."
She kept her eyes closed. Her lashes were maybe getting singed. Daniel wrapped his arms around her, and laid his cheek against her hair.
He whispered, "Life is so difficult sometimes, isn't it."
Ruthie's hair was almost pomegranate-colored, shimmery. Past her head, I watched him. His face was resting on a near-stranger's curls, someone he had only met two days before. His hand was rubbing her back. Going up and down her magenta t-shirt.
"And I thought to myself, 'I have never loved you so much,'" I told him later, as we slid under the covers in bed.
"I feel that way, too, Sarah. All the time."
"Over and over and over again." I leaned on my elbow. "It seems impossible, and I don't know how, but we keep topping it."
"Berneesha Brenetha. This is it again."
"This is actually it. Aren't we glad to be back?"
"Blisserated." Then he captured my head with both his hands and fluffed up my hair. "Tell me a story."
"Pfft." I blew my hair out of my face.
"The most embarrassing thing you can think of."
"I can't think. You go first."
"Well, I told you what I did in protest to my mother once, right?"
"Yes, when you were six and she locked you out of the house."
"I was bold."
"And I've told you the Mayflower story, when I was a kid. See, what more can we tell each other? And you've already told me about the kiwi seed."
"Kiwi seed! No!" He crumpled up and bawled, his chest crunching in. "No!"
"The kiwi seed story is the best."
"I can't believe I told you about the kiwi seed. Now you must to try to think of something."
"There really isn't anything you don't know. What about running through the woods at Beatha?"
"Yes. And the flowers in the church."
"That was actually in an adoration chapel, which is near my house." I touched the tendon on the inside of his arm, with the pad of my finger. "I can bring you there."
"And I told you about the bench on Lake Geneva?"
"I am still trying to beat that story."
"You can never beat it. Don't try."
"I know I can't."
"Or how about that time at Beatha, when we were in separate rooms --"
"-- No." I threw the covers over my head.
"Because what did you say?"
Muffled -- "We were supposed to meet up in twenty minutes. But I sent you a message on Facebook." I pulled my head out and my voice widened. "And when I told you what was going on, you just waited patiently in the kitchen and ate all the potatoes."
"I ate all the potatoes!" We knocked our heads together, chewing our fingers and the sheets.
"Look at us," through my bitten hands, "lying next to someone who knows every single thing about us. Down to the grittiest details."
"Sarah. You know everything about me."
"Wait. Do you think Ruthie can hear us?"
"Ruthie! -- No."
I unwound myself. "Danny." I exhaled.
"We are back."
"We are officially back."
The next day, my friend gave him a tight hug, and her mother handed us the key to their Cape house. I clipped it on my key chain.
We paused at the end of the driveway. I plugged in the GPS, and I felt like there was an arch around the pink car. Resfeber. "Sarah and Daniel, out on the road."
"American Girls on Tour," snapping in his belt.
One hundred and ninety miles. I reached over and touched his knee. "If I don't talk much, it's just because I'm resting my brain." Daniel was wearing his black jeans.
"It's all right, darling. I feel the same today."
So we drove past Walden, a penny-pond of waterbugs.
And Hawthorne's gabled house.
The bridge where the muskets bleated and fizzled.
And Louisa May Alcott's grave. I had cried there once: it was the size of a postage stamp and covered with pens and broken pencils. And a dirty American flag, from a dollar store.
We also passed Robert Frost's farm. When I was a teenager I walked in those woods, both diverging and yellow, because the trees were all aspens.
And we went by a sign that said, Brake For Moose. Hundreds of Collisions Per Year.
"It's like crashing into another car," I annotated suddenly. "I think they weigh something like a thousand pounds."
We were nearing Maine, the state which crowns the northeast. And miles to go before I sleep.
Feral. Then finally, "Mountains," I yelped. The first soft peak was down the road, between the knees of pines. Conical and dewy. Even a little bluish.
"Janey Mack," said Daniel, eating a bag of Tostitos. "Now this is what I think of as American countryside."
"This all." He pointed with a corn chip out the window. We were driving by Mount Chocorua Lake and the sun was lowering. The mountains were rough and burnt with alpenglow. "I do hope we see a moose. Preferably I hope we see a moose from a comfortable position where we can enjoy it, not crashing into it and dying. Still" -- with a crunch -- "beggars can't be choosers."
Then the land opened up and became fixed with farmhouses, all built with white clapboard. They were roofed with tin, either cherry or green.
"I once saw a moose galloping across someone's yard."
"You're codding me."
Then Daniel started ripping open a bag of M&M's. "I can't believe you build your houses out of wood here. It must be a fire hazard."
"I never really thought about that. But I supposed we've used what resour --"
"Sarah!" He sat up, a few M&M's flying out like popcorn. "Sarah, I just saw a moose."
I bobbed the car to a stop. "Are you kidding?" I swerved into a dirt road called Raspberry Lane.
"Though maybe it wasn't -- maybe it's not worth turning around."
"No, now we we have to look."
"It was in that house's garden."
"Daniel, I can't see anything."
"Maybe it galloped farther away. Go down their driveway."
"Okay, but if they come out with a shotgun on the porch, it's all your fault. -- Wait, stop. Danny, is that your moose?"
It was a plastic deer. A small plastic deer, standing with its nose in the air.
I put my hand on his headrest and laughed as I reversed the car. There was also a gnome, a buggy silhouette, and a ceramic boy fishing.
"Oh, do shut up," said Daniel.
My aunt and uncle lived on a knoll in the White Mountains. Their antique home was at the end of a cobbled drive, lined with maple trees and fields that sprayed out on either side. The house was pillared and white.
We carried our bags to the side door, and a chickadee hopped through a plum tree. Inside, the kitchen was large and warm. I put Daniel's case down on the red flagstones. A braided rug covered the floor, and the room smelled like baked apples and potpourri. My uncle asked us, "How was the Hampton toll plaza?"
I couldn't remember which one this was. "I don't think it was too bad."
"Sometimes that one can be bad."
"No, I don't think it was too bad."
My shoulder strap was pinching my shoulder. "Actually, we didn't have bad traffic overall."
"We did it in four hours" -- I hiked the bag up. "Which was good."
"I put new sheets on the third floor, Sarah," said my aunt. "I didn't know which bedrooms you would want, but take whichever ones you want. They all have clean sheets. And I'm not sure what you both like to eat for breakfast, but we have bread and cereals. And eggs, and you can help yourself to anything. I wish I could host better, but your uncle and I are working."
"No, we're happy to scavenge." -- "Yes, we can shift for ourselves." -- "We're just so grateful you're letting us stay."
"I also have banana bread and pumpkin bread in the freezer," my aunt said, "if you want that for breakfast. I was going to take one out to thaw but I wasn't sure which one."
Then I tripped.
"Well, Daniel hates bananas." I turned to him. "So do you want the pumpkin bread?"
He looked at me with stricken eyes. "No. I loathe them both."
There was silence in the kitchen.
My bag slipped off my arm and I laughed erratically. "See, he's notorious. But I'd be happy with either one." Hefted it up -- then held the strap in place with both my hands, hard. "Thanks so much for doing all this. I think we're going to lie down now for a bit. We're worn out from the drive and all."
"There are extra blankets in the closet if you need them," my aunt smiled. "Dinner will be around six."
"The house is beautiful," as we left the kitchen, "isn't it, Dan? And it's so huge. It has seven bedrooms and used to be a country inn." We went through the parlor, which held cranberry candlesticks and a magnificent grand piano. Then I said, "You're mad at me again."
"How dare you. How dare you, you cow."
"Oh, you're livid. I thought I was helping you."
"How was that helping me, putting me in that position? You know I don't like pumpkin. Cow."
"I didn't know that you didn't like pumpkin! I knew you didn't like bananas."
"Well, you should have guessed. And anyway, she was asking you that question, and you went and dragged me into it."
"I thought she was asking us both. And, yes, I should have guessed."
We journeyed through doorways, and hallways, and climbed two stairs. When we reached the third floor, we chose the smallest of the bedrooms. It had a sloped roof, a plush carpet, and a brass lamp. The curtains were lace and the bed was quilted rosebuds.
Daniel laid flat on his back and looked up at the ceiling.
"Sarah," he said, as if he would weep, "did I really tell your aunt that I hated both?"
I climbed onto the bed next to him. "Actually, no," I said. "The word you used was loathed."
"I said loathed? Yes, I did. Oh, no. Oh, Sarah!" He rolled over and grabbed my hands. "Oh, Sarah, oh, no. No. And I've been here only five minutes. This is a disaster." Then he covered his face. Underneath his fingers, his skin was mottled.
Then I saw a wrinkle growing near his eye. And a bit of laughter sputtered out. Suddenly we pushed our faces into the pillows, and screamed.
"And it was the way you said it! I loathe them both."
"You're right that I should have guessed you don't like pumpkin. Because you don't like vegetables and almost no fruit. . ."
". . . and you basically eat nothing that isn't white or blanched or boiled."
"Level one thousand."
Then I gasped: the laughter was making my lungs feel dry, like flaking seaweed. "Danny, I think I'm going in another room, only because I know if I stay here, I'll just keep laughing. I need to sleep."
I needed to be alone -- to moisturize -- to make my sponge of my mind plump up again. In the next room, I leaned my face against the mattress and it was warm on my mouth. But the twenty minutes only crackled the edge of my brain more.
Dinner was grilled steak and roasted corn.
When my uncle carried the bowl of mashed potatoes over, he said, "I was thinking we could go out on the boat this weekend," setting the bowl down. "If you would like that."
"We would love that," scraping my chair in.
"And we took out the banana bread for dessert, just for you, Daniel."
When I said, "I can't believe I actually said that," Daniel said, "Grand." He looked around the table as if he had a basket on his bike. "I'm an infamously picky eater. It might as well be out in the air."
"No," my aunt said. "Sarah told us you eat anything."
Shrinking my shoulders -- "Did I say that?"
"Oh, hello." He put out his hand to me. "I'm Daniel. It's nice to meet you."
After dinner, my cousin Kelsey came home from working at the pharmacy.
"Want a patch?" he asked when he introduced himself, holding out his candy box and shaking it.
"Oh, my," she said. "You just did that in the most --"
"Seedy way?" I said.
"Like he was one of those people who steals watches and comes up to you on the street." She sauntered over to Daniel and opened her lab coat. "Wanna patch?"
That evening we went to a male beauty pageant, to raise money for the local library. We paused in front of a mountain vista, and Daniel took a picture of myself and my cousin. He aimed the camera. "Say 'pinecone'."
Kelsey reeled away from my arms. "How does he know about the pinecone?"
"Because he's wonderful like that," I said, pulling her back. "And wait till you hear him start quoting from our childhood plays."
"'We're going to find the Swub today, Deewa,'" quoted Daniel. "'My name is Casey Swubbith. Do you have a problem with that?'"
She said, "Daniel, you are family."
Her brother was in the pageant, but he was the only twenty-something-year old contestant. The rest were in their sixties -- backwoods Mainers in work boots, plaid shirts, and suspenders. Many had wiry beards and hands blackened with tar or roughened from sawing boards. They stumbled down the catwalk, and performed a talent. Their wives were the judges. Some stuttered as they read their poetry, and stuffed dollar bills into their wives' pockets.
One dressed up as Santa Claus and threw glittering candy up in the air. A candy cane smacked Daniel in the face, and others shattered on our table. Another bearded woodsman played a saxophone, and knelt before me and crooned. I put my hand to my forehead and swooned.
Throughout the performance, Daniel was contorted with laughter. We both drank a cider, and I rubbed his back.
That night, getting under the covers, I said,
"I am really glad my uncle made a joke about the banana bread."
"So am I."
"Then tell me." I twitched the quilt over my shoulder. "Am I not a cow?"
"Are you not a what?"
"You called me a cow. You grosk."
"I did not."
"You did, a couple times. But I was a bumbling oaf. Even though I was trying to help."
"I probably lashed out because I made such a git of myself. Ach, I'm so sorry." Daniel pushed his hair straight up from his forehead. "How do you stand me sometimes?"
"I don't stand you. I mean, I do. I mean, you're not to be standed. Stood. You're to be savored."
"Sometimes to be stood."
I rolled into him. "How do you stand me, is more the question?"
"Let's not even question." He brushed my hair past my ear. "Bumbling bee."
"You know what I liked tonight," I whispered, "was when after they said the blessing, you crossed yourself. Like the rest of them. I've never seen you do that before. And somehow that struck me as particularly gracious."
Daniel fell asleep first that night. And around midnight, my phone flared.
I guessed the poor reception was loading a text late. I reached down and picked it up from the floor. When I opened the message, I saw that it had been sent hours ago. It said simply, Miss you. I closed my phone, and crawled back under the covers.
The next day I woke early, before Daniel, and thumped down the stairs.
In the hallway, I glimpsed my uncle through the window. He was watering the hanging pots of petunias on the porch. The flowers were fresh and purple, and the water can was simple and green. His movements were slow. The water was showering through the sun, and the floorboards were becoming soaked. I went outside, but he had left the porch. The petunia pots were still swinging, and dripping. Like little pieces of lemon pulp.
I started wandering down the lane, under the maple trees. The meadows were foggy. And before I went far, I heard a loon.
The lake was a mile away. But the call ricocheted through the forest and against the mountainface and maybe woke the bald eagle. I imagined her shaking her wings in a shaggy nest. An astral call from a smoky breast, howling from a watery hollow. Like a wolf had entered a temple. America's banshee.
I reeeeeally wanted to add the ornithological fact that the loon calls this way to locate its mate. But that seemed a little heavy-handed, haha. ....Also, I censored the "embarrassing stories" dialogue somewhat lazily, so if that seems awkwardly choppy or unrealistic at all, that's why. :P