I half expected that Ashley would pull away from my touch. I could see how devastated she was when she got in the truck, and I had no way to gauge her reaction since this was our first fight. As it turned out, I got no reaction at all. She didn’t pull away, nor did she lean to me in a sign of acceptance of my outreach to her. She just lay there motionless, leaving the whole weight of remedying the situation squarely upon my shoulders. If this situation were to be resolved amicably, I would have to find the way. While I didn’t like this new selfish side of her that I was seeing for the very first time, I felt genuinely bad that we were at this place. All of the closeness between us had vanished. For years now we had been as one. We awoke together, dined together, and slept together. Now all of the sudden, we were a thousand miles apart. Couldn’t she just reach out to me? Shouldn’t she apologize for just assuming that I would even want a baby around? She had caused this disruption, so why should I be reaching out to her?
My mind couldn’t find an easy answer to that last question. I was left to conclude that, after years of forced effort to avoid such a situation, I had let down my guard and given some of my value to her. She now had a place of importance in my life. This thought did not come upon me in a matter-of-fact way. It intruded in a bold and threatening manner, much like a German Shepherd would approach a darkly clothed stranger on the border of it’s property in the early morning hours. It shocked me with it’s ferocity, and I suddenly had an urge to run, much like I did in the restaurant a few hours earlier. Instead, I just lay there with my arm around her… thinking.
Nothing stays buried forever. Nothing.The Black Dhalia
I don’t know how long the process took, but eventually I came to a temporary conclusion. I didn’t need to find the ultimate answer in this moment. Everything could be resolved in time. For now, I just needed to be careful not to burn bridges. This realization comforted me, and I was able to focus on my thoughts of Ashley again. I was struck with how strong my feelings for her were. There was true passion in them. As I focused on these thoughts, I began to wish that there were a way to make her feel better. But how?
I thought back to the only relationship that I had previously had in my life. My mother would know what to do here. The thought made me miss her. All at once, I wanted so badly to pick up a phone and call her. I could always tell her everything, and she had never failed to find a way to make things better. What would she do now? More importantly, what would she tell me to do?
My mind traveled back in time to a night so many years ago when I was a small child. I was around ten years old then, and one of my Mother’s friends had done something to hurt me. I remembered how she cleaned me up, then got in the bed with me. For hours, she just held me and cried saying “I’m so sorry, baby. I’m so sorry.” My mother’s arms had always felt like the most secure place in the world, and that night they had an additional power. They comforted me, and made me feel like everything would always work out okay.
Slowly, I pulled Ashley towards me. She didn’t resist, nor did she assist. I sat up in bed and leaned against the wall of the sleeper. I pulled her into my arms, and I ran my fingers through her hair. “I’m sorry, Ashes. I’m so sorry.”
The words sounded strange and distant to me when I first heard them. I resented the way they hit my ears. I wasn’t sorry. I was right, goddammit! She should be apologizing to me. “Bridges” I thought. “Don’t burn the bridges”.
“I’m sorry, Ashes. I’m so sorry”. The second time I said it, the words sounded more real. It was as like the previous attempt had been read from a translation dictionary, as if I were in a foreign land and was trying to order lunch in their language, not knowing if they would understand the words and bring me what I wanted or throw me out for insulting them.
“I’m sorry, Ashes. I’m so sorry.” The third time sounded even better. It was more like a second language that I was familiar with. I knew the words, and while the pronunciation might be a bit off, the meaning would not be lost in translation. I began to rock her, and I rubbed her cheek with my hand as I repeated the words again. “I’m sorry, Ashes. I’m so sorry.”
This time the words came through to the local with the meaning that had been assigned to them. I could feel her shoulders shake a little before I felt the tear come down and land on my chest. “I’m sorry, Ashes. I’m so sorry.” She was sobbing now. She muttered something back, probably an obligatory “It’s okay” or “I’m sorry too” but I didn’t hear it. I was mesmerized by the power in my embrace and my words.
“I’m sorry, Ashes. I’m so sorry.” It grew better each time the words crossed my lips. It was in the local dialect now, and even the village elders would swear I had been born and raised speaking this tongue that I had learned just moments ago.
“I’m sorry, Ashes. I’m so sorry.” It was as if I had inherited my mother’s super-power. She began to hug me back. The wet patch on my shirt was slowly spreading as each tear pushed the boundary further onto my chest first, then to my shoulder and on to my stomach. “I’m sorry, Ashes. I’m so sorry.” She even kissed my neck. Was it just the words? Did they have some magical powers of their own? No, the fuel clerk had said she was sorry earlier that day when she shorted me on my change. I didn’t feel anything towards her. She could go fuck herself. “I’m sorry, Ashes. I’m so sorry.” The crying had slowed now. She gripped me harder as she hugged me back.
I have no idea how many times I said those words that night. Over and over I repeated them. I remember feeling tired at some point, and shortly thereafter feeling her breath grow heavy and realizing that she had succumbed to sleep. “I’m sorry, Ashes. I’m so sorry.” Even then I continued saying the words. That night long ago when I had heard those same words from my mother, I didn’t remember her leaving my side. I would not leave Ashley’s. “I’m sorry, Ashes. I’m so sorry.”
I woke the next morning still sitting in that awkward position. My back was killing me, and I heard myself utter those words one last time, as if I had continued saying them in my sleep. “I’m sorry, Ashes. I’m so sorry.” Perhaps I had, as she didn’t even stir at the sound of my final offering. I, on the other hand, had to get up. I was dying for a smoke and a cup of coffee.
As I walked inside trying to work the kink out of my neck, I was amazed at how good I felt. I actually smiled at the driver who held the door for me as I approached the truck stop. “Good morning”, I said instead of the typical “thanks” that I would usually mutter. I poured two cups of coffee, then headed back outside. There was a picnic table in the narrow row of grass that separated the store and the gravel lot, so I sat down and took a Lucky out of the pack. As I sipped my coffee and felt the rush of the first morning smoke, I took in the scenery around me. It really was a beautiful day. The grass had a deep green color that one might not expect for another month, as if it were showing it’s gratitude for having escaped the prison of snow that had held it captive for an entire season. I sat there long enough to finish my cigarette, then I crushed it out on the table and walked back to the truck, breathing in the smell of spring. I opened the door and climbed in before I remembered what had caused our fight the night before.
Ashes still had not awakened for the day, so I took a moment to collect my thoughts before intruding into her dreams. I looked over to the table where I had sat, and remembered a conversation we had some time ago. She had asked me what I thought was romantic. That one was easy. I could care less about romance, but you should always answer either “a sunset” or “a walk on the beach.” It’s bullshit but women think it’s deep or something. I went with sunset and tossed the question back to her. You won’t believe what she said. She told me that the most romantic thing in the world was “A picnic lunch.” I had never been on one, but I determined right then and there that I was going to make a picnic lunch for her when we got to Colorado.
The smell of coffee must have made it’s way back to her nose as I sat there lost in thought, because she was awake now. She had leaned over the seat and snapped me out of my thoughts with a kiss on the cheek as she took her cup. Yes, everything was right now. Everything except her stomach, that is. At least she got the door open this time before she expelled the sip of coffee she had just taken plus half of last night’s fried chicken into the empty parking spot beside us. Okay, almost everything was right.
My old Ashes was back now. As we drove along that day, it was as if the events of the night before had been completely erased from her memory. She pointed out the things of interest as we would pass them, and even laughed at my mispronunciation “Colorad-da-do” as we crossed the State line. “It always takes my breath away”, she said as the beautiful Denver skyline appeared in the distance, accented by the snow-capped Rockies looming behind.
I stopped on the east side of town and pulled into a department store. She started to get out of the truck with me, but I told her to take a nap. I wanted to get some supplies for our picnic without ruining the surprise for her. Although I had never been to one, I had seen a sign up in a truck stop one time for an American Legion Veterans Day Picnic which said that there would be “food, softball, and beer”. I got some ham, cheese, and bread, a six pack of Coors, a cooler to hold it all, and a softball bat that came with a glove and a ball. I had to run to the gas station across the street to get a couple bags of ice.
Once all of our picnic supplies were safely loaded in the trailer, I awoke Ashes and we went and had lunch at the burger joint next door to the store. We got back on the road and made it through Denver over the Mountains. There was a beautiful little park the other side of Idaho Springs where we would have our picnic lunch. It was a nice, quiet and secluded spot. I figured that since it was getting late in the day, I would stop at the rest area and we could spend the night there. That would leave us about 50 miles or so to drive to the spot where we would have our lunch the next day. It just wouldn’t be right to have such a grand occasion at night, when we couldn’t see the scenery around us, and judging from where the sun was positioned in the western sky, it’s light was not long for this day.
By the time we got parked, she wasn’t feeling that well so she used the bathroom and than laid down. From where we were, the mountains were visible on all sides of us, so I decided to take a walk and watch the sunset as I ran through the plans I had made for tomorrow, and sorted them all out in my head.
The highest ridges of the mountains to the west of us seemed to be on fire as the sun set behind them. The peaks directly ahead of me glowed a bright orange color, which tapered off to a red, then pink, and concluded with a purple outline around the higher peaks. Each point where the mountains would drop lower in defiance of the sun’s attempt to hide, the offender would be highlighted in a brighter color. The beauty of it was stunning, and I wanted to go get Ashes so she could enjoy it with me, but I settled for watching the splendor of nature in solitude.
It was completely dark before I vacated my post to return to the truck for a good nights sleep. I wasn’t really ready to abandon my position just then, but the dark sky had ushered in the cold mountain air, and I was beginning to shiver a little. I was thankful for the coolness, however, as it would guarantee that the food that I had purchased would keep until lunch tomorrow, even in the event that the ice in the cooler was to melt.
I stopped by the restroom on the way back to the truck to wash my face and get ready for the night. The trucks that had been there when we pulled in had all left out, their drivers opting for the amenities of a truck stop on down the line over the scenic offerings of this spot. I went inside and took my toothbrush out of my back pocket. I brushed my teeth and washed my face in silence. The door to the bathroom was old and worn out, and a slight breeze would push it open, then relent and the door would close back with a bang.
I walked over to a stall, and pushed the door open to use the toilet. The wind outside pulled the door open again and banged it shut, as if to emphasize the fear that instantly grabbed a hold of me as I saw the figure standing in the stall in front of me. I tried to yell out, but my voice wouldn’t cooperate. My legs suddenly felt weak, and I stepped back, losing my footing. I crashed down awkwardly landing hard on the cold floor. I sat there stunned as my brain tried to process the image that my eyes had sent to it. The cold that I had felt earlier came in like a winter storm that had just mustered the strength to push itself over the mountain and descend on the unsuspecting city below. I shivered violently, and closed my eyes hoping to reset the scene with a new image. I opened them again, but the figure still stood there above me. A gust of wind attempted to push the stall door shut, but the figure swung the door wide open and stepped out, standing directly over me now. No longer partially concealed in the shadows, there was no denying who it was.
“Hollywood?”, I gasped.