And the next day I was alone again. Still grateful. It was my last day of work. 6:30 a.m. Frying an egg in olive oil. Brewing black tea with almond milk. Packing quinoa, parsley, red onions. I was saying another goodbye -- this time to a ten-month old. When I arrived at work, I was glad to hold my baby, to feel his weight in the crook of my elbow. Heavy as a flour sack. A few hours later, I was standing in the middle of his room, dim, the sun gold-brown through the curtains. I rocked him back and forth, singing in Scottish Gaelic: "A naoidhean bhig, cluinn mo ghuth. Mise ri d' thaobh . . ."
"Little baby, hear my voice. I am here beside you. . ."
I nuzzled my nose into the folds of his neck; he smelled like banana bread. Then I put him down in his crib for his nap, and he stood, lifting an open mouth -- a kiss like a sea-anemone, wet.
I kissed him, too, then closed the door and went downstairs. Then I slipped down to the floor and leaned against the couch.
It had been sucking me in randomly -- eddies that opened and pulled, until I was tumbling upside-down through salty bubbles, the light twisting and finally becoming engulfed by darkness. Iciness up my nostrils. The couches and tables were blackened shapes. Now I couldn't see which way was north, which was the way to the sun. From inside this place, I somehow took my phone out of my pocket. I opened a new text message and started typing.
"Danny, I'm so worried about losing out on my time with you and maybe even wrecking our friendship because I am so deeply depressed."
The cursor blinked at the end of the sentence.
I stared at it, then shut my phone with a snap and didn't send it. I threw my phone on the floor and leaned my head on my knees.
"Just hold on. These feelings are temporary."
I got up and found chocolate powder in the kitchen pantry. It was for baking, dark and bitter. But I mixed it with water and microwaved the liquid into a semi-edible confection. I ate it.
Then I texted Daniel something different. I wrote: "I heard you're going to meet my mom at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston today and ride back home with her! That's awesome! I wanted you know I may be home later than usual. See you around dinner time!"
I said goodbye to my baby. He placed his cubby palm on the back of my neck. That was his gesture of affection. He cupped my neck, pinching the hair that furred over my atlas bone. "Thank you, Prince," I whispered, kissing him, "for everything."
I blasted the air conditioner and drove away. But I went past my house, and pulled into the parking lot of a shrine.
I sat in my car and ate a banana. Then I walked into the rest room. It smelled like a swamp. I put my head under the sink and took a long drink of water.
I walked out into the sun. Something popped on the asphalt at my feet, and I hopped aside. A pine cone was rolling like a hard green marble. I heard a chittering and looked up. A red squirrel was bouncing along a branch above my head, an aerial seal. Then it tightened itself, cocking its tail into a bend, and wailed at me. I laughed, and kept walking. But another hard green cone suddenly came flying down. I yelped, threw an elbow over my head, and ran.
I was at a Marian shrine in a delve of pines. I started following a path that meditated along the Stations of the Cross. It was a series of twelve granite rocks, carved with the journey from Pilate's palace, to Golgotha, to Arimathea's tomb. I loved that place -- for the woods. Thirty years ago, children had claimed to see their guardian angels between the trees. I continued walking along the curving pathway, through the cool shadows, running my fingers along the ribbed granite. Occasionally breaking off pine needles and smelling them in cupped hands. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flicker of white. I heard a crunch and snap. A flap like a white robe. I glanced into the forest. I didn't see a guardian angel, but I saw something close enough. I saw a fawn.
She still had her porcelain marks, and her tail was flicking away flies. She was nuzzling through some ferns. Then she pulled her head up and looked at me. And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. Not breaking eye contact, I pulled my feet out of my flip-flops. The ground was not grass, but moss, three-inches deep -- wet. Cool and covering my toes. We were one hundred feet apart. I touched her with my gaze, and she reached out to me. This was my first time, a miraculous unbudding. It was possibly her first time, too: she stared at my humanness. We were both as still as fallen raindrops. Her legs were like seaweed, floating up from a reef. I allowed her to make the first move. And then she did -- oh, oh, towards me. Not away. Not sideways. Closer.
So I took one step towards her, too.
She lifted her chin. Her tail flicked at another fly. She rotated her ears out and in. She had small pieces of green tufting out of her mouth, and her mouth circled, chewing. She had fuzzies under her lip, and the sun was illuminating each string. She lowered her head again. Her ears were blooms, vast; the forest light swam through them, turning the membranes pink and veined. Everything about the baby deer looked unfinished, like her artist had sketched her -- skirting her spindly legs, her pert bottom. Her kneecaps were crumply. Her brow bone sleepy.
I stepped forward again: unshod through the moss. I raised my hand from my hip, slowly. Not that we were close enough to touch. But I could hear the rip of the leaves when she wiggled her lips around the stems of a bush -- maybe a sarsaparilla tree, the leaves gelatinous.
A creaking noise behind us suddenly made her lift her head. When she looked and saw that I was nearer, she, too, came nearer. Poking her nose towards me, sooty.
But the creaking became louder, and I saw a boisterous family was approaching, with a baby carriage. I hesitated. Then I turned towards the sticky-mouthed children, and said, "Want to see something? There's a baby deer in the woods. Look." They were eating lollipops, the yellow and red tracing down their chins.
"Mama! A deer!" and at the shrieking, and the squeaking of the carriage, the deer elongated its neck, stiffened its back, and then bounced away, popping over a decaying log, and disappeared into the green lacery.
"Thank you," the mother said to me, "for telling us."
I walked farther down, presently around the rosary path. It was a circlet of pavement, girdled with fifty-nine boulders. Each boulder was chained together and nailed with a plaque -- the "Hail Mary" in different languages. The rosary finished with a ship's anchor, painted a flaking blue.
I reached the thirtieth bead, and there was something about the woods that made me want to go barefoot again. I kicked off my flip-flops and walked away from the asphalt and into the copse. The moss under my feet was now thin and dry, riddled with chestnut hulls and crumbling acorns. I headed towards a private cemetery in the back, hidden by a rectangle of boxwood bushes.
Near the bushes I found a plastic chair, turning away from a statue. It was Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. I paused to look her, doll-sized and vaulted on a post. She was gray, and her broken folded hands had been adhered back on. She wore a veil of spiderwebs from her brow to her fingertips, and pine needles were caught in the veil. Her cheeks were rough as if with goosebumps, from the chaffing cement. Her half-closed eyes were vague. . . her mouth slightly erased. She was pressing a bunch of her veil under her left armpit. There was a snake and a crescent under her foot.
Then I sat down on the chair. With Mary behind me, and bare-souled, I wrote to my ex. I told him it was not mutual. I had been defensive on the phone and had broken down afterwards. I told him I respected his decision, but I did not agree with it.
"This is my heart," I wrote to him, "raw and real."
I said I wasn't trying to change his mind, but to share what I felt. I told him about the red squirrel and about the fawn: "I was so close to her I could see the veins in her ears." I told him I wanted him.
I wanted him.
It was a long text -- several pages long. I glanced over it, looked for any edits. I hesitated, and then I pressed send with a sure, hard finger, and clapped my phone shut. I stood up. I put the volume on silent and socketed it in my pocket.
Then I walked to my car, the sun now unrolling a carpet of velvet across my path. . . orange and exultant. My shoulders were lighter. I had opened my torso and shown my insides -- my pink clockwork, my tender gears and spiral staircases. I was still quivering. But something was pushing up to my chest and making me feel strong, too. Myself again. Scared, yes, with a zingy tinny aftertaste. But also powerful and whole and real.
The drive home took three minutes.
I parked in my spot on the bark mulch. I took my phone out of my pocket and was surprised to see that my ex had called five times and left a voicemail. I listened to the recording, standing in the driveway with my backpack hanging off my shoulder.
"I got your texts," he was saying. "Thanks for those. When you're free, maybe we can talk." He paused. "-- Love you," he said, and hung up.
I tapped out a text response before going inside: "Thanks so much for your message! I'm actually about to have dinner and then start off on a road trip with Daniel. But I'll get back to you later."
I screeched open the back slider and went into the house. Daniel looked up from his bowl, sitting at the island again.
"How was Boston?" I went over and dropped a kiss on the top of his head. "How is Ruby?"
"Ah, she's grand. In seconds we were sitting on the couch and just screaming with laughter."
"Oh, that's so awesome."
"Genuinely," sliding his fork into his mouth, "was like the five years hadn't even gone by."
"Oh, that is so great." I dumped my backpack on the floor. "She seems like she's doing really well in life."
"Yeah, she is. She's a honey."
"She is." I pulled a bowl down from the cabinet. "Hey, how do you feel about leaving tonight? I feel like hitting the road."
"So do I."
"Yeah. Let's just do it."
"How fast can you pack?"
"Ten minutes," he said.
I wolfed down a bowl of rice. I threw my pajamas and toothbrush and makeup kit back into my duffel bag.
And through a sunset, we headed west.
We drove past Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg.
I drummed my fingers on the wheel. "This feels good," I said. "It feels good to drive and be going somewhere." The sky was magenta and fuchsia, cymboling with gold.
Shorter one. I'm tired. *pants*