We took a taxi to the airport early in the morning. The orange sky rose behind the bare limbs of trees, so that they appeared to be a grove of something in wild bloom. The drive was quick and without much to report on at that time of day--rows of houses, Victorian, bungalow and craftsman—eventually giving way to apartment buildings as we neared the freeway. When we reached the airport, you got out quickly, and I sensed the anticipation in your body, nearly throbbing to leave me. At the edge of the curb, you pulled to you, smelling of my winter green detergent, and the two of us hugged very closely as though we were lovers parting for a short time, rather than for good. You said many sweet things as you ran your fingers through my hair, but I was captivated by a small blemish on the sidewalk, perhaps left by a piece of gum that had been ground under foot many times. Or was it something else? Maybe the paint from a black suitcase, scuffed as someone ran into the airport. I became interested in the shape of the object, while you whispered how much you’d miss me in France, at your new university, which was a lie, but one that neither one of us bothered acknowledging. You’d lose yourself in language, in coffee shops, in talks of Foucault and Derrida, in a swirl of cat-like female faces.
But I digress. What I became captivated with was not necessarily the spot itself, but its shape, which exactly replicated, in precise detail, the contours of the state of California. I found that as I ignored your voice, I smelled the apple orchards that I’d traversed in my youth, that I saw the spindles of light and the green leaves on the stems. I saw the wrinkles in my Aunt Evie’s face, almost like a sail billowing in the wind. How could a shape on the cement smell like California? I didn’t know, so I tried to banish you as quickly as possible, knowing that this next journey wouldn’t need you at all. For the first time, it was you who was crying, not me.
Back home, I noticed that the world had started to shift around me. I found myself regarding a bit of soap scum, greenish white, gathered at the edge of the dish in my shower, and I tasted suddenly the salty air of Fort Bragg, from a trip I’d taken with my mother and siblings to the coast when I was a child. We’d walked among the flowers and thistle on the dirt paths that ran along the cliffs, pulling fat, fuzzy caterpillars from long blades of grass. Then we’d hurled them into the air, and watched their bodies curl up and then lift off in a gust of wind, on their way to becoming butterflies a bit too early.
This newfound sensation, the world unfurling like a map before me as though I were a cartographer of sensations was deeply unnerving and freeing. I saw a fly buzzing in a window, who I swear I’d seen before, during a sticky summer day in Mexico when I’d been on my honeymoon. This same fly alighted on the rim of my margarita glass at a restaurant outside Cancun, where a band of mariachis was flailing away. My husband was asleep on the narrow table after becoming dehydrated on a hike, and the rain thrashed at the roof. And this fly and I stood witness to the first cracks.
It was as though the code of the world, which is mathematical, had suddenly been revealed to me. Everything was a revelation. And so I decided to write a note to you, about what I’ve been feeling this last month while you’ve been kissing graduate students in France. The note was handwritten, and I only used the margins because I saw in the white lined space of the page, a memory of childhood, a time my mother had taken us up into the snow because we’d all been acting like hellions on the way to church. We’d thrown snow balls at one another and laughed all afternoon, the sunlight on the snow blinding. I didn’t want to deface the memory. And then I tore off the strip of what I’d written and stared it for a long time, waiting for the world to reveal itself to me.
After a while, I realized that nothing was going to change this time, so I started taking tiny slips of paper and eating them. You’ll be surprised to know that I’s taste best. They have the distinct flavor of ice tea and bring to mind screen porches, lemonade, and the sound of crickets. D’s are reminiscent of the crooked slant of old tombstones in a graveyard. I picked up each letter that had been torn, sampling the zesty e’s, which are like the sound of ice hitting a carbonated drink mid-summer on the coast of New England, like a host of gnats gathered round a light near a softball field. I can tell you that l’s are like the streak of grey across the body of a house wren, perched on a telephone wire in early spring, in an apartment you live in alone and divorced. Every letter, every bit of the world is just a memory, an impression, a secret waiting to be unlocked.
I still remember sitting in the car, thinking of California and watching your plane take off. It wasn’t your plane of course, but one of the ten to fifteen that were given clearance as my car sat in the dense traffic on the freeway now, but I imagined it was—contrails cutting like a knife through the blue sky, and the plane a blue freight train, a caterpillar, then a bullet, then a butterfly, then nothing at all.
About the Author: Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, D.C. He obtained his MFA in creative writing from American University where he also now works as an instructor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than thirty publications including: The ThreePenny Review, Tin House Flash Fridays, Hobart, Apt, Bayou, and Catamaran. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast.