It’s grayer than I expected, Sarah said, turning her head to loosen her neck and facing out the window in the opposite direction. We were making great time, zipping past semis on I-95.
Sarah had a voice like sandpaper, which was exactly why I loved her. In fact, it was a reason shared by everyone who’d ever loved her. But I felt certain it was mine.
It’s January, I said, half-engaged and half-distracted. I had this sense that if I didn’t pay attention, I might forget where we were headed.
I don’t mind it, she said. I like when it’s light out and you can’t find the sun. The way brightness just happens, kind of sharp and dull at the same time.
What I was thinking—what I didn’t say—was that Sarah was like that. Her eyes a shade of ash, constantly changing. The way she could be sitting right next to me and, also, somehow absent.
My intrepid rent-mate Dave told me one time he thought he could see straight through Sarah. After forty-eight un-showered hours of online poker, I wasn’t sure Dave could see anything, but still the comment bothered me. I didn’t know if he was speaking literally about her pale paper skin, or else taking a jab at her aloofness, which he seemed to think was some kind of act—or worse—a trap.
Well you can’t, I said, and meant. Then I left without saying when I’d be back.
I tumbled down a narrow staircase and out of our building into the rain. Sarah and I had a crowded meeting place in those days, and it was always better in the rain. That way, everyone else would be focused on the business of staying dry— eyes down, shuffling. That way, no one would notice Sarah’s ring, or the one I wasn’t wearing.
Now, we were driving all these miles to break away from the city, because the city could feel so suffocating. Crowded was the way this thing got going. The seismic energy of all those other bodies, constantly colliding. Always, the potential for some unexpected thrill— like almost drowning.
Now, we just needed to breathe. Now, we were driving so many miles to be surrounded by nothing. Not even by mountains. Not even the sea.
The highway closed in as the shoulders dropped out and I had to tighten my grip to avoid slowing down. In those days it seemed we were always somewhere rushing, the signs slipping behind us and the sky ahead a sort of beautiful, soft focus. Between the median and the rough buffetings of trucks— a matter of inches.
Six months earlier, I had literally crashed into Sarah, stumbling drunken, nose-to-shoulder, hard enough that tears squeezed out.
I’m sorry about your shirt, I tried to shout above the club sounds.
I’m sorry about your nose, she said. I hope it isn’t broke--
Her voice trailed off, but the damage was done. She smelled like licorice, and oranges. And I was still off balance. Both of us.
My aunt and uncle who lent us the keys to the farmhouse went easy on the questions, but I’m sure they saw where this was going. We’d borrowed a friend’s old wagon, the kind you’re supposed to fill with bikes or skis or children, and packed almost nothing. Just a few sets of clothes and enough toothpaste to last the weekend.
When we got to my aunt and uncle’s place to pick up the keys they insisted that we eat. You have to stay and eat, my aunt said, pained at the thought of all that wasted cooking. Potatoes and peppers and onions—all oily and delicate—and chicken so slick it slid right out of its skin. Sarah had seconds while I kept up conversation. I listened as my uncle delivered a dozen pointers about the property, only one of which I would retain: if the flue sticks, shake it.
When it was time to leave, my aunt hugged Sarah generously. I could tell she was really squeezing her, the way you would never hug a stranger. More like a mother.
We drove another thirty miles out into open country. Blue-black sky and a dark blur of trees. We coasted off the paved road and onto a crumbling lane. In front of us, the farmhouse was waiting. On one end was a modern, renovated section with plumbing and electricity. On the other, two dark stories and a chimney.
My uncle left a huge pile of split logs just outside the back door. The wood was solid and dry and the fire worked quickly while Sarah licked her fingers and flipped through a magazine.
We made love on the edge of a wrought-iron bed and fell asleep halfway between the sheets.
That first night, I must have dreamed coyotes.
Disorient: to lose direction. For once in my life, this was not unpleasant.
I remember a flood of pale light in a room without curtains. I remember fumbling for my glasses, uncertain if I’d packed them. I remember ice cold floorboards, and the comfort of open fields, and tall pines keeping their distance.
I made pour-over coffee and skillet fried eggs that quivered and hissed in hot grease. Sarah had lost her taste for domesticity, but not her appetite. She was cross-legged, quiet and focused as broad strokes of toast yellowed her plate.
I already miss this place, she said, her coffee cupped in both hands. She was sitting with both knees pulled in, cloaked in an afghan.
When I was little, my dad used to take me and my brothers up to a cabin near June Lake. My uncle’s place. He died when I was seven.
Sarah closed her eyes, and let the steam curl over her face.
My dad had no idea how to fish or camp, but that didn’t keep him from trying, she said, finally looking up, and smiling.
I never knew you had brothers, I said, running a wet rag around the rim of the skillet. You never mentioned them.
Sarah stood up and stretched. We never ask those questions, she said, twisting her arms behind her back. I thought that was on purpose.
The two ends of the house, the old end and the modern end, were joined in the middle by an all-glass hyphen. After breakfast, Sarah caught me in the middle of the hyphen. She was very small and I knew most people assumed she was soft because she was small and soft-spoken and because, at first, I did. But Sarah could be hard and hardheaded when she knew what she wanted. She had a way of moving, of showing me what she wanted, of making sure she got it, and neither of us minded all that glass.
In the afternoon, we fell asleep in different rooms, and when I woke Sarah was exploring.
My uncle had restored an outbuilding that covered an old root cellar that was the perfect temperature for wine. He said we could have any bottle we wanted and I found Sarah cradling three dusty reds.
I had to force the stuck door to let myself in, but Sarah didn’t startle. She never did. Were you planning to share, friend?
Oh, sorry, bud, I forgot to tell you. I have a hot date tonight.
She was smiling, but her tone was serious. So serious I almost wondered what she meant.
Speaking of— I stink, she said, nodding towards one of her armpits. I need a bath. She was holding the wine awkwardly against her chest, like a person who doesn’t know, or who doesn’t want to know how to hold an infant.
Fine, I said, pouting. Just promise you won’t do our things with him. I’d never get over it.
Sorry— No promises. You said it.
Sarah took her time in the bath while I practiced swinging an ax.
I had pushed into the bathroom and announced my plan, saying, I’m going to kill time with an ax.
Sarah shook off my comment, took a deep breath, and lowered herself into the bath. It was my job to make bad puns and Sarah’s job not to encourage them.
Though I had no business swinging it, the ax was perfectly balanced, and splitting things took no effort at all. I split a few logs that tumbled off the pile, then a few stray branches and, finally, an old tire I found half-buried in the ground. The tire I regretted because it probably dulled the blade, but I was on a roll.
When the sun started going down, we sat looking out the window across the farmhouse table and began a game of Scrabble.
The sky dissolved from timid blue to tingling pink to bloody violet and everything in between, and we took gulps of wine each time the color changed.
I started with VOID, and Sarah made WILD. Next I did CROW, and Sarah made VROOM. I said, Whoa, whoa, whoa there’s no onomatopoeia allowed. And Sarah said, Prove it. But I didn’t care enough about the rules. Next I made LATEX, to which Sarah said, Watch it. Then she dropped LUPINE out of the blue. We played until we’d used about half of the tiles, which was a long time for two-player Scrabble, and by the time we finished we were hungry as wolves.
Have you decided what you’ll do when we get back? I asked. It was a question that had been burning since before we left, and it had taken all of my courage to ask it.
We were sharing a baguette and some cheese, but that was beside the point. Wine was the point. Or night was the point. Or night was a knife and that question the point.
Sarah said nothing at first, which made me feel like I was an asshole for even asking. Then, she said something completely unexpected.
Well— moving out, for starters.
Suddenly, the room was very, very dark and we were completely alone in that country.
Do you think he knows? I asked, hiding behind my glass.
He knows because I told him, Sarah said, looking straight into my eyes for the first time all weekend, making sure her words sank in. I told him just before we left.
Where will you stay? I said, too softly again. I mean, you’re welcome to stay with me and Dave— If that’s what you want.
I don’t know yet. I know I need to go. I know this isn’t fair. And I’m exhausted.
If that were all Sarah knew, she would have looked at me when she said it, but it wasn’t, and she didn’t.
Instead, she tried to recover some of the lightness we’d lost when the sun went down. She drifted over to me and grazed my chin with her fist. And nice try, but there’s no way I’m living with Dave. I’d literally have to kill him, and there’s no way I could move his body.
I didn’t know what to say, so I made a deliberate show of filling my mouth with bread, which got me the smile I needed.
I always imagined—because that’s how it happened in movies—that the wind out there would howl just like a coyote. But it turns out it’s nothing like a coyote. That night, it howled like nothing but wind.
We made love one last time like it was the very last time because that’s the only way we knew how to do it. I have always assumed that’s what people in affairs do, but then Sarah is my only point of reference.
We stayed up late watching the fire. We stared at the logs until they stopped hissing and turned to embers. I held Sarah’s body tight against my body as if I were about to lose her, because I was always about to lose her.
She said almost nothing, just pressed back against me from time to time as if she knew I needed reassuring. As if to promise the very thing that she had no business promising. Except, not really.
The whole weekend went that way.
When it ended, we woke up finally to a hard sun shining. We packed the car. We started driving.
About the Author: Gaetan Sgro is a writer and a physician who went into medicine for the stories. His writing has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, Five Quarterly, JAMA, and other fine publications. He blogs here.