Cheryl slips her thumb under the collar of her tunic and pulls up her bra strap with a quick snap.
“Damn thing,” she complains. I watch her, and smile, because every morning it’s the same routine, she’s been wrestling with that wayward strap for years, which is why I come here. I need the certainty of small things.
Any minute now, she’ll head over with the coffee pot and ask if I want a refill, and I’ll nod and say, “yes,” then watch her pour it, and wait for her to ask how I’m doing.
Right on cue, here she comes.
“Hey there,” she says as she fills up my cup. “You okay today?”
And I tell her, “Yeah, you know, everything’s fine.”
Then, “Thanks for asking.”
I feel her hand on my shoulder, “Glad to hear it, honey,” she’s says. And she means it too.
Sometimes I think maybe I should say more, talk to her. But she knows my story. Most folks round here do, so I just watch her walk away and let her get on with the day.
It’s early still and the place is empty save for a couple of guys sat at the counter. Outside, the heat shimmers above the asphalt and blurs the edges of the day, and I stare at it and feel as if sleep is about to wash over me all over again, even though I only woke up an hour ago.
I swallow down a little acid burn and squeeze my wrist, feel its unfamiliar fleshiness, and as I do, a wave of warm air disturbs the air-conditioned calm, and I look up to see a woman standing in the doorway. She’s holding the door open for a man who is lodged in the door jamb, pinned there by his heavy bags. I watch as he does a little shimmy to get free, puffing with the effort of it, and try not to laugh.
“Here Sam, let me take one of those,” the woman offers.
But he shoos her away and keeps on wriggling.
“It’s okay, Martha, I’ve got it, I’ve got it.”
I nod a good morning to Martha as they settle into their booth, and she nods back at me with a limp sort of smile, as if she’s also exhausted by the day already.
“I don’t know why don’t you just leave the bags in the car,” Martha complains. “Look, we can see it from here. It’s perfectly safe.” She gestures to something outside and I look out the window and see a grey sedan parked out front, but Sam doesn’t bother to look.
“Let’s just get some breakfast, Martha. We need a good start remember. It’s gonna be a long day.”
Cheryl brings them some menus and pours them out some coffee, “So what can I be getting you folks today?” she asks.
“You got any specials?” asks Sam.
“Sure, they’re listed in the back there,” Cheryl tells him, and she flips over his menu and taps it with her pen.
He scans the list then starts placing the order for both of them, Martha smiling and sipping her coffee, then interrupting Sam, “Oh, no eggs for me, I’m not so hungry today,” she tells him. And he puts down the menu and looks at her and says, “It’s going to be a long day, Martha. I’ll get you some eggs you’ll be needing them.”
And I can’t tell if Martha is embarrassed or annoyed or just too used to Sam to care anymore. All she does is shrug and say, “Okay, Sam, whatever you think.”
It makes me wonder how it is some people grow together like this, bickering and seemingly always close to some sort of little eruption. But later, when I watch them sit and eat, the way they pass the salt back and forth, the way Martha pulls a paper serviette from the holder and passes it to Sam, indicating the smudge of ketchup that sits at the corner of his mouth; I watch these little things and see that, for all their arguing, for all Sam’s grouchiness, there is also a quiet contentment between them that is nicer to watch than I thought it would be.
And a little pang of something nips at my ribs and again I need to swallow it down and breathe it away.
They’re headed to the national park. Sam is keen to tell me that, pointing to the bags which are full of camera equipment.
“She thinks I’m crazy hauling all this gear around,” he explains, gesturing to Martha, “but I always wanted to go out there into the desert and photograph those saguaros. You ever been out there, into the desert?”
“Sure, plenty of times,” I tell him. “Ray, my husband, he loves the desert.”
“They’re beautiful things those saguaros, don’t you think?” Sam continues.
And I shrug, “Yeah, I guess they are.”
“I guess they are,” he laughs, shaking his head and swiping me with a sideways glance. “Damn right they are! Hundreds of years old some of them. Did you know that? Don’t you think that’s amazing?”
And I remember a thing I read some place. Something I’d forgotten. About an Indian tribe that buried the placenta of new-borns at the base of saguaros believing it granted their children a long and happy life.
I want to tell him about it, but mystical beliefs don’t seem like Sam’s thing, and besides, the name of the tribe eludes me, and the idea of it, when I think of the soft tissue and the thud it would make as it hit the dirt, the scrape of fingers as they cover it over, leaves me feeling nauseous and faint.
So, I look at Martha and try to find a way to express it, but Martha misunderstands.
“Sam’s got a thing for the desert,” Martha tells me. “We live in Oregon, you know?”
And Sam looks at his wife, as if, just then, Martha has become unrecognisable to him.
“What the hell has that got to do with anything?”
“I’m just saying, Sam. It’s different in Oregon …”
Beyond the window, I see their sedan parked out front and notice the stickers plastered all over it, all the places they’ve been to together, and I think about how nice it must be to travel with someone, to do something like that, collect stickers you can plaster all over your car. You can drive around showing the world what togetherness means. Letting everyone see that you both have what it takes to travel the road together.
“You okay there?” Martha interrupts.
“Hm?” is as far as I get before Martha carries on.
“The early months are always the worst. You just hang on in there, a few more weeks and you’ll see. It gets better.”
It takes me by surprise, because so far, I have been able to pretend it is just a little weight gain. And so far, no-one has noticed. And for some reason it makes me nervous, the idea that someone else should know.
“Well, you make sure that husband of yours takes good care of you okay?” Martha tells me.
I try to say something but the words don’t come, so I leave it be. But later, as I watch them leave, Martha waving at me and smiling, I wonder why I didn’t set things straight.
About the desert. About Ray.
If he did love it out there then he never mentioned it. It always stood at the outer-reaches of our lives, a nowhere place, something in the background.
Not once have I ever thought to go out there. Even now, as I watch Sam and Martha pull out of the parking lot, Martha’s arm extended in a wave, I can’t help but wonder what it is they’re doing. Why go to such a place? What is there to see?
But if I could step in that car, I’d go with them. I know that much.
When I get home I tell Ray all about Sam and Martha. I know it’s something I need to stop doing, and probably soon, but for now I still feel the need for it.
“You’d like them, I reckon. They’re enthusiastic about things, you know?”
Though as soon as I say it, I remember the stickers on the car, and suddenly understand that the enthusiasm is only Sam’s. Martha just goes along for the ride because there’s nothing else to do; so she follows him, watches as he sets up his camera for the umpteenth time, and listens to the click, click, click of the shutter, while she peels back waxy paper and applies yet another memento to the bumper.
And I can almost hear Martha sigh, a sound that sits somewhere between happiness and resignation. It fills the room and it takes me a moment before I realise it’s my own.
And what would Ray say about that?
“They’re just happy.” That’s what he would say. “It’s just happiness. Why don’t you let it in? Surprise yourself.”
“Maybe,” I think. “Maybe.”
But when I look around the empty room, happiness is not what I see.
Instead, all I see is the space he once filled, a silence where his voice used to be. And not for the first time, I wonder how that can be possible. How all that emptiness can possess so much density.
The only thing which seems real is the glimmer of city lights beyond the window.
They flicker and shift in and out of focus, pulsating towards me and then pulling away, ephemeral and melancholy, the light so distant it feels as though the city is a place I have separated from somehow.
And I try to imagine how easy it could be to let happiness in, but my mind empties, and when I look up at the night sky, I notice how dark it is, the stars obliterated by the city’s luminescence.
Ray. I try so hard not to think about it, but every day it comes. Every day I see it as if I were standing right there on the street watching events unfold.
He was waiting at an intersection when I decided to call him and tell him to come home.
I’d dialled the number and let it ring through two, maybe three times, before I hung up.
“No,” I thought, “wait a while. Face to face is better.”
And now I wonder, every day I wonder – is that what distracted him? Was he shuffling around in his jacket pocket looking for the phone when it happened? Unaware of what was coming down the road behind him, coming straight at him.
There is no way of knowing, but I’ve convinced myself that this is how it happened. I’ve played it out in my mind so often that it must be real. It is real. This is what happened to Ray.
The truck shunted him from behind. The force throwing him through the wind-shield and out onto the road. And what he was thinking as he was propelled through the glass was this: “Wait, give me a minute, will ya? I just need to take this call.”
And if I’d let it ring through, if I’d gotten the chance to talk to him, what would I have said?
Nothing, I should be honest with myself about that.
“Oh, hey there! I must have dialled you by accident.”
Left it at that. Kept it a secret a little while longer, just long enough to figure out what I felt about it all. Because what I felt was not what I imagined I would feel, the things I was meant to feel – joy, elation, that sort of thing.
No, it was more a feeling of dread. That was the word for it. A feeling that I was holding my breath, that I was staring unblinking at something formless and dark. Something that was approaching fast and that I wanted to run from, but found I couldn’t.
It was almost as if I knew what was coming, knew I should try to do something. Shout out a warning. Prevent it.
But all I did was hang up the phone.
And so, while Ray was dying, I was staring at the kitchen clutter, the morning’s dirty coffee cups and the plates piled high on the table, the butter left out and forgotten, all softened and distorted and on the point of souring. Everything all rush and chaos and devil may care.
I looked at it all and thought, “this will need to change,” and tried to imagine the room with some sort of order to it, an order I would have to impose, but it evaded me.
“We like things this way,” I realised. “Chaos is who we are.”
And my hand slipped to my stomach and paused there. “If I wait a while I still have options. And Ray? He should be part of the decision, shouldn’t he? Shouldn’t he?”
But before I had a chance to answer, Ray crashes through the windscreen and whether I’m ready or not, whether I want it or not, none of that matters.
“You okay there?”
Martha’s voice calling to me.
And I want to tell her, “No, I’m not okay, Martha. I’m not okay.”
And what would Martha do? She would have an answer. That’s how Martha is. She has answers. She knows what to do. I’d seen the calm certainty in her eyes, the kind of calm that comes from always knowing who you are, and what you want, and how to get it.
This was the thing I understood when I watched her in the diner with Sam, when I watched all the small ways they belonged together. Sam passing the salt like it was a little gift. Not sliding it across the table, but picking it up and placing it in Martha’s outstretched hand. And Martha waited for it because she knew he would hand it to her this way.
And it was as if I saw how they were, right at the beginning, Martha scolding him, “don’t slide the salt, Sam.”
And he’d taken it on board, not because he thought it was important, but because she did; both of them understanding longevity exists in the small gestures.
“Is this what could have been?” I wonder. “Is this what I’ve lost?”
But I know it isn’t.
Because I’m not that kind of person. The kind that pays attention. The kind who dials the number and doesn’t hang up. Who stays on the line and then says the things which must be said.
Out in the car park, there’s an empty space where the grey sedan had been. I sit in the booth where Sam and Martha had sat and stare out the window at the asphalt. There’s a stain there. An oily patch that has spread in illogical directions, its pattern formed by the countless cars which have sat there waiting over the years, slowly dripping, as if they needed to make a proclamation.
“I was here once.”
And I wonder then about Sam. Where he is now, what he’s doing.
I wonder what he made of his desert adventure, what he thought when he stood underneath one of those giant saguaros and finally got to take in its full glory. Maybe he was disappointed. He’d done what he set out to do and now all he had was a pile of photos and another bumper sticker.
That was the problem with a thing like that. You set out to do it and then, once it was done, all you had was the same question you started with – so, now what?
“But you could take the moment with you,” I think. “You could stand there in the desert and look up at that age-old thing. You could take in the sweep of desert sky, and you could keep it there. Feel it for a moment. Feel it forever. Deep inside of you.”
“Hundreds of years old some of them.”
“And what is it you feel when you see a thing like that?” I wonder. “What is it you know?”
“I was here.”
“Yes, Ray, you were.”
“I still am.”
“Yes, Ray, you are.”
And I find myself wanting it too. I want to stand there in the desert and look up at that sky and just know.
I want to bury something there at the base, if that’s what’s needed.
The sky is a deep indigo, mauve on the horizon and faintly yellowed at the edges like a fading bruise. As evening falls a breeze picks up and ripples through the air. It makes a scratching sound as it flicks at the shrub, which is strangely sinister, and fear forces me up on to the roof of the car where I lie back to take in the sky.
It’s as immense as I knew it would be, though not as intimidating as I remember it, and I lean back and wait and watch as one by one the stars emerge, the constellations revealing themselves slowly, forming a familiar pattern in the sky that settles and guides me.
I had sat under a sky like this with Ray once, years ago, though when I try to remember where, I draw a blank. But I remember I had looked up at an abundance of light and Ray had started to map it. Ursa Minor, Orion, Cassiopeia, tracing his finger across the sky, showing me the patterns.
“Stop,” I’d said. “Don’t spoil it.”
Because I thought naming them took away the wonder. It shrank the awe, and made the vastness smaller. Placed mankind in the sky where it didn’t belong.
He’d tried to convince me that there was a beauty in that too, something wonderful in the explanation, in the understanding, but I’d stopped him.
“No,” I said, “just leave them nameless. I like it better that way.”
But I wish now I’d let him continue. Let him map a path for me there in the sky. Some route I could follow, upwards, then beyond. Now I’ll never know.
And, as if hearing me, something in the darkness moves. An arm waving. “Martha?” I think.
Then I see it for what it is. The outstretched arm off to my left, just within my field of vision. It tries to touch the sky. One of Sam’s saguaros, pointing upwards as it has always done, all those hundreds of years.
“Ray was right,” it says. “Look up.”
“The answers don’t really lie there though, do they?” I ask.
“Who’s to say?” it replies.
So, I look up, even though I know that the stars which shimmer and dance and seem so alive are long dead; everyone knows it, though no-one believes it. You could live a whole lifetime and be dazzled, never accepting that the light is all there is, that if you were to reach up into the sky and try to touch them there’d be nothing there. The light would pass straight through you and you wouldn’t feel a thing.
But lying there alone in the dark, staring at the night sky, it feels as if it really is possible to grasp at the sky, to pull some small piece of understanding towards you.
And somewhere, a voice again.
“Just let it inside.”
There are voices all around, whispering things, trying to tell me something. The sky, the stars, the desert sand, the saguaros, they all have something to say, some little piece of knowledge they can pass on. It’s just a matter of lying back and listening.
And I think of those Indian women again, folding soil over their placentas. Securing happiness for their helpless children. Simplicity again. The small ritual acts which make things happen. Good things. Like Sam handing Martha the salt shaker.
I look at the saguaro silhouetted against the night sky, its arm aloft, pointing to the heavens. One hundred years from now it will be still standing there. It will still be pointing. Though I will be gone and so will the child inside me. Our ends are already known.
I tilt my head back and take in the full sweep of the sky once more. Only now the stars are just a blur of gas and light, the constellations lost and absorbed in the swirling mass of time. But beautiful, for all that. Despite the fleetingness of it all, despite the arbitrary way it can all cease to exist.
It has left me nauseous for so long. Yearning for something permanent where permanence doesn’t exist.
And I feel it then, the tumble and fall within my belly, rising and falling like laughter. The answer to every single doubt, every single question. More real than anything I have ever known. It swells as the first glimmer of light appears, white on the horizon, the start of a new day.
It says, “Here I am.”
Jennifer Harvey is a Scottish writer now living in Amsterdam. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in various magazines in the UK and the US, such as: Folio, Bare Fiction, Carve Magazine and Ink, Sweat & Tears. Her YA novel was longlisted for the 2016 Bath Children’s Novel Award and she is currently working on her second book. You can find her online at www.jenharvey.net or on Twitter at @JenAnneHarvey.