When he wasn’t drinking, or listening to music, or working, her daddy sometimes took her for long walks through the winding trails of a neighboring nature preserve that meandered inland from their house on the coast. He always seemed to just know things. She vividly remembers the day he taught her about “working” trees.
“Do you see that big Oak with the bend in it?” he asked, pointing to a huge, funny shaped tree, one with a kink in the trunk that looked like an elbow. “That’s a trail marker,” he said. “The Indians forced some trees to grow like that to mark the trail so they could find their way through the woods,” he said.
“How?” she asked.
“Well, when they were very young and flexible, they bent them and tied them down for a while,” he said. “If you ever see a trail marker in the woods, it’s special and it’s usually an old tree. It’s a tree with a job,“ he replied, and she remembers him chuckling at his little joke.
To him, the trail marker trees were worth the excitement and the moment she knew about them, she shared his sentiment. They are indeed natural, still growing, existing things that look unnatural on purpose with the stoic and mundane (but monumental) task of simply showing people the way.
She loved their treks through the woods. And now she can’t hike anywhere without seeking these trees. She checks registries and historical societies whenever she travels and if there is one nearby, she makes a point of going to see it. She always takes a picture. She has “found” 3 real trail markers in her lifetime so far, in different parts of the country, and she keeps the photos in the big hardcover book about birds her daddy gave her for Christmas the year before he died. In each photograph she is doing something different, smiling at the camera. In one, she straddles the bend like she’s riding a horse, and in the next she’s peeking out from out behind it. The third photo has her hanging from the limb like a gymnast. “Birds of America” rests on their hand-carved coffee table next to her daddy’s old scotch glass which is home to some of her precious, found things. Currently, the old glass holds an arrowhead, 2 lucky Indian head pennies, and the little pink rock from her beloved. Her small found things have jobs to do too, for they are laden with all her secret wishes and prayers.
Today, she walks along a nearby path with their good boy, who starts and stops and trots ahead sniffing and scouting the scene. In a little wax paper bag, she collects the wild raspberries that grow abundantly along the edges. She eats a few and the tartness curls her tongue because they are not exactly yummy yet. Later she will empty them all out into an iron skillet to let them pop and simmer on the stove. She will sprinkle in some sugar to make a tiny pot of jam.
“C’mon baby, let’s go!” she shouts, gently tapping the dog on his haunches. She picks up her pace, and the dog follows suit, galloping alongside her. Her diamond ring catches the sun, and it sparkles brilliantly, sending beams of light through the woods as she moves, zigzagging out into nothing except a God-given, beautiful day ahead.
He is at the counter organizing a sandwich when she drops the bag on the table and sidles up behind him. She grabs his rear end for a lustful squeeze before wrapping her arms around his trunk of a torso, and she presses her face into his back, kissing him once. He loves the way her face feels on him. Her nose is nestled inside the crevice of his spine, between his shoulder blades, and she takes a deep breath, smelling him, his soft shirt, his essence. He smells like books, and work, and laundry detergent and bicycles, and the crisp air that moments ago blew right through him. He is home on a lunch break between classes.
Exhaling, she says, “I think I am pregnant,” and like a cartoon, the dog abruptly looks up from his water dish, splashing some on the floor. These words escape from her lips in a low whisper, and she giggles, keeping her head still. Her beloved stops spreading mustard and turns quickly, accidentally knocking into the ugly, chunky mug that was resting precariously near the edge of the sink. It falls. Miraculously, it does not shatter. Instead, it bounces like crazy inside the stainless steel basin, making clamorous noise before rolling and swirling to a perfectly upright stop. So far it has survived all sorts of mishaps. He dropped it off the deck rail a few weeks ago, and it landed safely in the bushes, mere inches shy of a large, jutting rock. He also left it in his car, where it rolled around the back knocking into things, for the better part of a month. It is the mug that won’t break, the “chosen one” that will eventually make it’s way onto a thrift store shelf where it will sit and collect dust until someone cannot leave the store without it. Or, maybe it will (after years upon years) become a cherished piece of their history. Maybe he will grow to love it someday, despite it’s weird, loopy handle, and its obnoxious, pretentious shape.
He looks at her and his eyes are wide but they are happy big. His pupils go spreading and dreamy inside, and his face is suddenly soft. He holds her gaze. He puts his hands on her shoulders and dips his forehead down so that their heads are touching, conjoined, but there are no words between them, there is just gentle, beating breath. He puts a swath of hair behind her ear and leans down for a tender kiss. Then he squats down low, lifting her shirt, rubbing his warm hands across her abdomen. He hovers close to her navel and says, “Well, hello, hello! Hello in there little Maybe Possibly Hopefully.” And that is all he says, as a grin spreads across his face. In the moment he simply thinks “daughter,” and her name is Maybe. He sees a tiny dancer spinning about in the darkness, and that sets him grinning even more.
She can feel it, and it is weird. She feels her body working overtime, splitting cells, creating something from scratch. She is tired and she is convinced and there is no other explanation but they will wait a bit before buying drug store tests and making big appointments. They will enjoy this feeling of lovely possibility, this feeling of their darling little Maybe, for a few more days. They will wait for good things. Oh, but she can feel her bowl mixing, and she knows.
She walks him back to work, and they stop for an afternoon treat.
“Nothing wrong with this,” she says, and her eyes dance. Her favorite ice cream flavor is vanilla. This perplexes him because it is beyond boring, and in complete opposition of all she is, which is decidedly not boring. She wants nothing in her ice cream or on her ice cream, in fact she barely wants it taste like anything (as far as he’s concerned), or so it seems. He’s all about nuts and fruit and chocolate and chunks of whatever else they can throw in. Cereal…candy…blobs of sticky sauce. She crinkles her nose when she looks at his cup. His ice cream is a rocky, jagged, melting garbage pail of sorts, hoarded with clutter and brown bumps, and there’s just way too much going on. Her ice cream, on the other hand, is clean, smooth, sophisticated and minimalist. She’s been known to shake on some rainbow sprinkles once in a while, when she’s feeling dangerous, but it’s a rare occasion. “Loving every second of mine,” he says with a grin, looking like an 8 year-old boy. And then they are both quiet, lost inside their own thoughts, happily savoring each spoonful and lick because that is what ice cream does to people.
It is her day off so she unrolls her mat in a sunny spot near the window for yoga. She practices, moving both fluidly and elegantly through various poses, continuing to breathe while creating her own routine of sorts. The Rolling Stones play quietly in the background as she completes her sun salutations.
“I saw her today at the reception,” Mick drones softly as the French horn weaves in, and she steps forward, steadying herself, planting herself, becoming a mountain, becoming a tree. She puts most of her weight on her left leg and slowly raises her right, resting her foot on her inner thigh, bringing her hands to prayer. As the choir reaches its dramatic and inspired crescendo, she stretches her branches to the sky, gracefully and powerfully transporting herself to a place of inner strength and awareness, purely moved and blissful. She exhales her intentions, her wishes, and pulls them right back in, filling her soul.
“If you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need…”
Today, she is Buddha keeping a secret. With a slight smile on her face, she brings her hands together again and prays and prays for what she wants, which is a bit more than what she needs, just this once.
Later, she is on the back deck, sipping an ice tea, thinking about campers. This is something she does entirely too often. She is fascinated with tiny houses too, but mostly she likes old, adorable campers shaped like tin cans, painted in the pastels of the 50’s and 60’s. She loves the “cute and compact” factor and thinks she wants travel around the country with one hooked to the back of her car someday. She wants to pin up her hair, and wear kitschy, cherry patterned aprons while eating sliced, ripe avocados with baguette. She wants to read books in a portable hammock set up next to a pristine lake just outside her skinny door. She wants to ride her bike through trails and rocky terrain that lead to the serenity of free million dollar views and priceless epiphanies. She would like to come upon a trail marker tree, and catch fish, and listen to night owls argue while she thinks about her daddy. While she thinks about what he might be like now if he was still alive.
Her man? Not so much. A cramped and damp camper is not a romantic notion for him, as he enjoys the comfort of his old leather buster, with a game, any game, quietly droning on in the background. The mellow voices of the announcers coupled with the hum of the crowd is but a whispering lullaby as he dozes off. He also knows that as much as she fantasizes about traipsing around in a camper, they both like a bit of space between them sometimes. Space is good for them. But, despite his skeptical, raised eyebrow protest, she will continue to dream her dream, (her ever growing maybe), about teardrop trailers, mint green Shasta’s and those shiny, coveted, Air-streams.
She sips and thinks of her insides as a tiny house of sorts, where her unborn child is resting. Right now, Maybe is a pink kidney bean that will grow and grow, and will be carried from one escapade to the next by her wander-lusting mother. It has been a few days since she whispered her thoughts out loud, but she feels it. Her body, once energized for everything, always up for adventure, is now, suddenly, depleted. Her breasts are tender and heavy. After dinner last night, she unraveled on the couch and slept for a solid hour and a half with the dog, so what else could it be?
It is Saturday morning and he is outside washing the cars and she watches him from the window. His arms work in a circular motion, and he’s wearing his old high school gym shorts. She stares at his muscular legs, they flex and move in the sun, and she smiles. Her heart skips a bit as she remembers the story he told her about what happened. “My leg bent back and snapped in two places like a branch,” he said. “My knee was messed up too. I lost my scholarship,” he had said, without the requisite frown, or even a hint of sadness. “My dad took it really hard.”
It was the fourth quarter and his team was up 3 points. The clock was ticking and they had possession of the ball. He was “managing the game,” taking all the time granted in the huddle, setting up the running plays. Calmly and deliberately running down the clock was something he did very well, and the scouts had made a note of it early on. There seemed to be no panic button with this promising young quarterback. He seemed nonchalant, and he played with more brains than emotion. It was brilliant to watch. To them it was a show of “mature intelligence” when he took his time holding the ball, stepping into the pocket, faking a look to an open receiver, but it ultimately opened the door for that big tank of a linebacker (the one who broke records at Notre Dame and now plays for the Seahawks) to crash through the line of scrimmage and sac him, forcing his foot into a hidden crevice in the ground, twisting and bending it in such a way, and with such force that something had to give. His bones did the giving. The hit was extra rough, but it was legal. As the story goes, “he went down like a ton of bricks.”
His dad was beside himself pacing around the halls of the hospital, yelling at doctors, and even the coach, placing blame on all present.
“It’s okay, dad, it’s okay,” he softly repeated, during the chaos. Contrary to how things usually went when an athlete is hurt, it was his father who needed the sedative and reassurance. It appeared that all the fragile eggs his dad was holding inside his dad basket came crashing down that day. They smashed one by one, dripping and seeping in unison with the tears on his mother’s face.
“I acted like I was disappointed, but I didn’t feel my words. I guess I felt bad for my father, but deep down, way down, I was glad and I felt guilty for it,” he said when he told the the story. “But, I didn’t have to pretend to love it like he did anymore.”
All the Sundays spent down at the Pop Warner field. All the awards and accolades. All the phone calls and scouts. All the front yard, pre-dinner tossing. The old tire hanging from the tree that he spent hours sending a perfect spiraling football through. All the game watching, and gym memberships. All the lessons and pointers. All the travel. All the hope. All of it erased in one 10 second play under the blaze of Friday night lights.
When he first told her this story, the story of how the trajectory of his life dramatically changed in an instant, she couldn’t help but think of the trail trees. In a way, his broken, bent, beat-up leg was his life’s trail marker. It was the forced bend in his limb that pointed him in a different direction, placing him on a path toward what was surely turning out to be a more meaningful life.
It made him grow a different way.
The break was ultimately a beginning, a small tragic moment in time that pushed him around a blind corner, one that eventually opened a door that led to her. In the same way that her past haunted and shaped her life, his turning point event, this trail marker was part of his living history, a not so small notch in his timeline.
It guided him to maybe. Maybe his life was supposed change course. Maybe he was meant to do something else. If nothing more, it helped him forget about what he was supposed to want.
She watches him like a cat, from her perch near the window, drinking him in, absorbing him with her feline eyes. She is suddenly struck with the beautiful thought that love, this growing, changing, love story of theirs, will forever be a fragile-strong thing.
It is surely as fragile as a bent, broken limb, but it is also as strong as the mighty tree that reaches onward and upward anyway, toward the light, despite the fateful break.
Thank you for reading!
You can read Them, A Love Story, chapter by chapter, here: