Part 1: Nineteen
Like all nineteen year olds she at once assumed she was perfect, deeply flawed (which anyone might realize at any moment), and was unaware that this was the pinnacle of her life, that she would never be more anything than she was right now. It would only be in deep retrospect, in mourning for what she had once had and misunderstood, many years later, that she would understand how natural and complete her perfection had been at nineteen, how all nineteen-year-olds were perfect, really, just buds opening, perfect in their ripeness. Maybe by the time she was fifty, she would be able to distill her sense of her once-self and know, with regret at not having known at the time, what she had once possessed and unwittingly squandered.
As it was, at nineteen, she behaved with profound assurance while being secretly so insecure that she could be talked out of almost anything with a casual comment. She was certain, for instance, that she was ready to make mistakes and was in a hurry about it. With no one to play devil’s advocate, she grew more sure, dropped out of college and moved to St. Croix, just like that, confidence and ignorance being so often the same thing.
On the island of St. Croix, she stayed with a friend of a friend and his girlfriend, who introduced her to hard-core veganism, sprouts and soy shakes in the morning, pot and complicated rum drinks at night. He helped her buy her first car, a ’69 VW bug sedan hand-painted a turquoise green that the Rastas on the island simply could not get over. “How much you want for that car?” they’d shout at her at stoplights. “I’ll give you fifty bucks!”
She learned how to drive a stick shift, and how hard it was to drive a stick shift on the left side of the road, and when a cop pulled her over, she learned that a person’s supposed to buy car insurance when they buy a car. “No one told me,” she said. He let her go. Thank God this had happened here, where no one would ever see how little she actually understood.
She got a job at a restaurant in the middle of Christiansted where young waitresses wore bright-colored sarongs so they looked like a tourist’s cheesy version of sexy tropical flowers.
At night after the restaurant closed, the wait staff and bartenders stole whatever crappy bottle of liquor the owner wouldn’t miss, and drank it on the beach. One night it was peppermint schnapps. They did shots of it and all kissed one another slowly, laughing under the moon, waking in the morning on the beach with splitting headaches, feeling like the rising sun was trying to murder them with its brightness.
Sex, of course, was utmost, and she set her sights on Bobby, an older guy in his 30s who was a frequent customer at the restaurant. He was Irish-looking with red curly hair and freckles, and came in late every night for a scotch. He wore salmon-colored Izods with the starched collars standing straight up. It was the eighties. All the other waitresses wanted him and that was enough for her to choose him over the other guys she could have had.
Her entire strategy was to ignore him. She was pretty sure no one had ever tried that before, that she had invented the concept of playing hard to get. And miraculously, to her anyway, it worked. When he came in for his drink, she brushed up against him then turned away and spoke to someone else - simple as that. By the second night, the bartender said that Bobby had been asking about her schedule, and on the third night, after trying to get her attention a few times, he walked up to her and just said, “Have dinner with me.”
“When?” she asked.
“You tell me,” he said. She said the next night would be good, but wait, no sorry, that wouldn’t work. Maybe next week? His lean toward her became more pronounced. He was handsome, he really was, and boy did he like her.
“Call me,” she said, and left without giving him her number. They were both intoxicated by her power.
He came in the next night at the beginning of her shift. She asked him, “So, what are you doing tonight?” and he whispered, “Whatever you tell me to do.” It made her laugh. She said, “I’m done by 1:00a.m.” He was parked outside by quarter of.
She followed him in her turquoise VW out to where he was house-sitting, a palace on a hill with a gray/blue Great Dane who sat at the outdoor pool with them, one massive paw on top of the other. The pool was shaped like a lake and was lined in dark blue mosaic tiles. Bobby brought out a bottle of Champagne for her, a bottle of scotch for himself, and a little bowl of coke for them both. They swam in their underwear beneath the stars, the Great Dane looking on, expressionless.
She left a trail behind her as they stumbled through the house to the master bedroom. Her purse was by the door somewhere, her sarong on the floor after that, her underwear (still wet from the pool) slapped onto the tile floor, her shoes, her earrings all along the way. They never turned on a light. He began kissing her somewhere just inside the front door, saying nice things, like, “You’re too pretty for me.”
He tasted of cigarettes and scotch, which was a new taste to her and so not unpleasant, the way it might have been if she had been a little bit older. His arms were strong and she could feel every single cell in his entire body focused right at her. She loved it. “Look at you,” he said, shaking his head and laughing as he stood while taking off his shoes. “Are you sure about this?”
“Come on,” she said, kneeling on the bed, naked, “I’m sure.” Before climbing in with her, he took a big drink from the scotch bottle he’d carried in, then crawled to her and tipped her slowly down onto the pillows. She heard the Great Dane sigh and settle on the floor nearby.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, a few minutes into sex, she became aware of something weird happening, like Bobby was on automatic pilot or something. His body was still moving, but he stopped murmuring to her, stopped holding her face, and almost the exact second that he came, almost that exact moment, he began snoring, almost before he even finished, while he was still rolling off of her.
She had only been with one other guy, a serious high school boyfriend, and wasn’t sure what to do. She said, “Bobby,” a few times and poked him, but he didn’t respond, leaving her disappointed and confused. Then out of nowhere, he made a gurgling noise like he was clearing his throat, turned over, sat up, scratched at the red hair on his chest, smacking his lips together loudly, saying something she couldn’t make out.
She heard the Great Dane’s nails clicking on the tile floor coming up to her side of the bed. The moonlight made Bobby visible as he arose; he walked to the end of the bed and stood there, his feet wide apart. Then she heard it, a steady, strong stream of urine against the foot of the bed. She froze, one hand on the dog. Bobby farted loudly. The stream stopped and then started again. She held her finger up to her mouth telling the dog to keep quiet. Bobby finished, then got back into bed and began snoring again almost before his head hit the pillow.
She looked deep into the dog’s soulful eyes. “Get me the fuck outta here,” she thought, and in the dark, she slowly, silently, like a thief, retraced her steps, getting her earrings off the bedside table, feeling around for her underwear, damp from the pool still, and then her sarong and her shoes, and finally her purse.
The dog stood at the front door with her, looking like “Take me with you.” She whispered, “Sorry man,” tip-toeing barefoot out into the night, closing the door as quietly as she could behind her.
She was still riled up from the seduction and the cocaine, and was scared that Bobby might wake up and want to talk or something, God forbid. She rifled through her bag frantically looking for her car keys until she remembered they were still in the ignition. The old VW was facing down the long driveway and she got in, locked the doors, and eased off the hand brake so that it started to roll. Not wanting to wake Bobby, she didn’t start the car until she was halfway down the driveway, and then, best as she could in the old car, sped away.
She didn’t really know how to get from this part of the island to her place, but St. Croix was small enough, and she’d find her way home eventually. She opened all of her windows, smelling the ocean air and then started up a long, winding hill that the moon was sitting on top of. She took in big whiffs of the night-blooming jasmine, feeling more and more relieved the farther away from Bobby she got.
But when she crested the hill, a hill she had never crested before on a part of the island that was virgin territory for her, she was confronted unexpectedly by the neon, belching, terrifying Hess Oil Refinery down in the valley, taking up her entire view. It was lit up like daytime, with several chimneys that threw fire twenty feet into the night sky, a grotesque cross between the Emerald City and some gulag she had read about in high school only last year. She took her foot off the gas and the car stalled, and there she sat at the top of the hill in the moonlight.
There was nowhere to go but forward, so she started the car again and drove, trying not to even look at the refinery as it passed her on the right, mile after mile, stinking of rotten eggs. She didn’t know why she was sort of crying, and then why she was sort of laughing. The whole night, maybe everything, was just so disappointing, so much lamer than it promised to be. Was it all like this? Was being on your own really this horrendously underwhelming?
Bobby came by the restaurant the next day and had brunch with some friends in her station. She gave the table to another waitress, who wanted to know how the date had gone, and of course she didn’t tell the truth. She just smiled and shrugged, trying to look mysterious instead of humiliated and confused.
He had his collar up, of course, when he came to her, and put his hands on the bar on either side of her, all smiles. He leaned into her ear and she could feel all the other waitresses watching, which she liked, the being watched, the evidence that she had gotten someone none of the others could have, even as she recoiled inwardly from him, pitied him, hated him a little even. “I’m sorry,” he whispered in her ear. “I was kind of an animal last night.”
“Yes,” she said, “you were.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll ever go out with me again?” he said, still whispering, smiling, leaning.
“No,” she said, laughing. “No, I will not,” aware that to outsiders watching them, she and Bobby looked intimate.
“Give me another chance,” he said, leaning, leaning. “I could do so much better.”
She smiled and blinked slowly. “Not with me you can’t.”
“But they don’t need to know, right?” He tilted his head toward the rest of the room, at all the pretty waitresses who were watching them. It dawned on her that she had the power to salvage something for them both here, if she handled it right.
“They don’t need to know,” she said, standing on her toes and kissing him on the mouth, slowly, right in front of everyone. “Now go away,” she whispered, and he went, smiling and shaking his head.
She heard him mutter, “Holy shit” as he walked away.
Later, the let-down of the oil refinery and of Bobby coalesced into one disappointment when she thought back on her year in St. Croix, the rotten-egg-stink always just over the hill, just as things started to get good.
Part 2: Fifty
What a rotten decade this had been. It had taken her father years to die, for one very major thing. At the hospital a few years back she’d seen the worst thing she thought a person could see, her father asleep in his hospital bed, his gown pulled up oddly and his wrinkled pink penis and balls sitting there, stuck onto him like a Mr. Potato Head nose and mustache. “Put out my eyes,” she’d joked to her husband. “Put out my eyes.”
But it turned out that seeing her father’s genitals was not the worst thing she’d see by a long shot. When he’d panicked, for instance, disoriented and drugged and had crapped on the bathroom wall in the hospital, that was worse, and worse still was that the poor guy knew what he had done and was frantically ashamed.
And worse than that was sitting with him in the nursing home, month after month. When it was time to leave, he’d reach for her hand and say, “How will you know where to find me?” His eyes would get big and watery and she’d sit back down.
“I’ll come look for you right here.”
“I hope you can find me. I just hope you can find me again.” She’d finally have to pull her hand away and go home, hoping all night that she would be able to find him again in the morning. He’d had a place in the heart of New York City, just off Bryant Park, his kitchen shelves overflowing with unopened bottles of Champagne…it was hard to reconcile this before and after.
And sadder than all of that even, after he died, was when her mom told her, “I can’t hear the spring peepers any more.” Endless, over-lapping endings, one after the other, stretching on forever without relief. It made life hard to look at straight on sometimes.
But it wasn’t just her dad’s protracted death that wore her out, or her mother’s increasing age. Grown-up life was a lot of hard work for almost no reward. The furnace broke or the roof leaked, or just when she thought she was catching up, her property taxes would jump. She was slightly failing at everything, and after her father’s death, life had backed up on her like a 10-mile traffic jam. She was fifty and felt like cortisol was dripping from every pore.
At the end of the semester, she go away, she’d take a year, is what she’d do, to try and let the years of fruitless labor and endless mourning wash over her and away, she hoped. She’d take walks. She’d listen to people. She’d never rush anyone on the road or at the supermarket. She’d try to right herself, however a person did that.
On the final day of the semester, her husband got up early and helped her pack the car. “Don’t forget to come back home,” he said, nuzzling her neck sleepily in the driveway. His hair smelled like their pillows.
She had a meeting in Virginia the next day and planned to make a trip of it, stopping at a farm in Caseville with a man in his eighties who had been a friend of the family for forever. “With Dad’s death,” she had written to him, “I feel a constriction of the inner circle, and so I’d like to see you, even if it’s just for a cup of coffee.” He’d written back, “Come stay at the farm for a night and I’ll buy you a nice meal.”
She pulled into his driveway in Virginia in time for dinner, the early May sun still hanging in the sky. Peering through the glass front door of his house, she saw him, white-haired and ghost-like. She rang the doorbell but he didn’t hear it, so she knocked and shouted, “Hello!” and he turned, smiled, and waved her in.
He had a full head of white hair, preppy clothes and opinions about everything. He was upset, for instance, that his fifty year old son wanted to be an actor. “I don’t know what to do,” he said over his first martini at dinner. “He’s throwing his life away.”
“He’s fifty,” she told him, “there’s nothing for you to do anymore.”
“I like you,” he said. “You’re terrific,” and for a moment she knew he was right. She could see how her laughter fed the old man, echoed the real happinesses of his youth. He said, “Oh, I’m having so much fun.”
“Me too,” she said, and patted his hand, thinking of her dad, gone only a few months.
They split a steak and he said, an impish grin on his face, “How about a second martini?”
“Sure,” she said, “what the hell.”
Back in the farm’s driveway, the moon had risen. He turned off the car and said, “I’m just going to call my girlfriend. Would you say hello to her? I’ve told her all about you.”
“Of course,” she said, getting out of the car and stretching. She could smell cut grass and the sky was a lovely navy color with light still behind it like the blue of a stained glass window.
“Oh, Patricia,” she heard him shout into his cell phone “we’re having the best time. You’d love her. Yes. Yes. Maybe on her way back.”
She watched him talk to Patricia in the driveway, and realized that a stream of urine was arcing from his pants, hitting the gravel in a strong, unself-conscious, horse-like jet. She almost laughed, but it wasn’t exactly funny, or rather it was the kind of funny that made her wish she was far away. He handed her the phone, and she chatted with Patricia, watching him to see if he had become aware of what had happened, but he gave no indication that he had. He had a wet circle the size of a dinner plate on the front of his Chinos, and when he led her upstairs to show her the room she’d stay in, she saw that he had an enormous wet circle on the back of his Chinos too.
He turned to her on the stairs. “It was a happy marriage,” he said down to her, “between your mother and father. Was it?”
“Yes,” she said, “yes. They were happy together, right up until the end.”
At her bedroom door, she said, “I’ll be gone before you get up in the morning so we should say our goodbyes now.”
He hugged her, and she hugged him back. She had seen much worse, and would see worse still that she couldn’t even yet imagine. Who knew when or if she’d ever see him again, and she’d come to learn that the moments that most make you want to run away from were the ones you had to stay for, or regret. She’d learned that proper goodbyes inoculated you against swarming clouds of regret.
He smiled at her with such sweetness that she put her hand on his face a moment and smiled back, feeling an enormously vulnerable patch of stubble on his cheek that his razor had missed that morning.
She listened while he descended the stairs and could see from her window, which was in a sort of a wing of the house, that he’d turned off his bedroom light almost immediately. She waited another few minutes and then tiptoed downstairs, careful not to make a sound. Once in the car, she locked the doors and eased off the handbrake, letting the car roll halfway down the driveway before turning the key in the ignition.
With many hours to kill before her meeting in Charlottesville, she took the back roads and drove slowly, feeling better and better the farther she got from the old man asleep in the farmhouse. She drove way below the speed limit, her windows all the way down so she could smell the early spring smell of cut grass and turned-over fields. There were deer along the side of the road, bathed in blue moonlight welling up thinly in the night like ghosts.
The best she could figure out to offer was to bear simple witness as the people she loved failed and righted themselves…and failed again. She’d do her best to right herself, now. What else was there for her to do?
She was glad to be driving farther away from home. It meant that, eventually, she’d have to choose to turn around and head back, whenever that might be. Her husband would be there, smelling like sleep. She could hear the spring peepers off in the fields, and a dog barking far away, faintly.
N. West Moss is the winner of The Great American Fiction Contest of 2015 from The Saturday Evening Post. Her work has also won two Faulkner-Wisdom gold medals (fiction and non-fiction), and Lunch Ticket's Diana Woods Memorial Prize for creative non-fiction (out of Antioch). She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, MacDowell and Cill Rialaig. She has completed a collection of short stories, which is looking for a home, and she is at work on the final draft of her first novel, set in New Orleans in 1878.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The first half of the piece (from when I was nineteen) has been with me for about thirty years, but didn’t have enough of an arc to make it a story. The moment that the second half happened last summer, I was stunned at the way the two stories reverberated off one another. I was driving through the back roads of Virginia mulling it all over, and felt compelled to write it down.