I drove to the gas station but I didn’t relish the thought of standing in the cold to talk to Ziggy. I didn’t know where else to go, though.
So I asked the attendant, who at that time was a dark-haired, somewhat dark-skinned man. I couldn’t have told you what ethnicity he was, only that after seeing mostly white folks around there, he looked a little surprising to me.
He suggested I try a truck stop about fifteen or twenty miles down the interstate, or maybe a lunch counter about ten miles down the county road. I thanked him and got back in the car and dithered. If I tried the lunch counter and it was one of those little places where the phone didn’t actually work, or he was wrong about there being one there, then it was a 30 minute drive to turn around and try the truck stop. The truck stop seemed more likely to have working phones, and probably more of them, but it was farther away.
And it felt like every minute counted. For every minute it took me to reply to Ziggy’s page, he might be one minute closer to having to go somewhere. Plus Claire had chirped anxiously at me as I was leaving and I’d promised I wouldn’t be too long.
“Is he still angry with you?” she had asked.
“I assume so, but who knows.”
“He does seem very… changeable.” She had dark circles under her eyes. “But I get the feeling he has a long memory.”
“Yeah.” I truly believed that if Ziggy convinced himself he should be happy about something, he could make himself be happy about something. But the opposite was probably also true. “I better go call him right away.”
She was sitting on the loveseat (there was no couch) and she lay her head on her folded arms on the armrest. “He’s not going to want to come out here, is he? To this… swamp?”
“It’s not a swamp.”
“I know it isn’t. It’s rather lovely here. But that’s what he’s going to say when he sees it. You know he will. And he’s going to look at the bed in your room and…” She made a face that was a strangely credible imitation of Ziggy’s sneer. “And you’ll end up sleeping on the floor. Or out here. You won’t be gone long, will you?”
“I’m going to call him and then I’ll come right back. I might talk to him for a while though.”
“Just don’t be too long.”
“And it’ll take me a while to get to and from a phone.”
“I know. But you know. No woman likes to be left alone and defenseless. No matter how lovely the surroundings.”
What I thought as I got into the car was, she thinks it’s lovely? That’s amazing. She’d called it lovely twice, in fact. I guess it was dawning on me that I had been expecting a string of complaints, just like she had complained constantly about Janine’s house.
The truck stop, on the other hand, was not what I would call lovely, but it did at least have a couple of indoor payphones, and they each had an actual booth like you’d find outdoors except these were mounted inside along a wall, near the restrooms.
It was the middle of the day which wasn’t the busiest time for truckers to be there. I got into a booth and started typing in numbers. There was even a little fold-down seat inside there.
And then, wouldn’t you know it, I got his machine.
“Hey, got your page,” I said, trying hard to sound normal. What does it mean to sound normal at a time like that? I just imitated a calmer, less upset version of myself. Maybe if I acted like we weren’t about to have another heart-cavity eviscerating argument, then we wouldn’t.
“I’m at a truck stop in… somewhere. I don’t even know. We’ve got some issues with the phone at the rental place. So, yeah. Apparently I’m lucky my pager even gets signal out there. At least according to the guy at the gas station nearest to us. There’s a phone there but it’s outside and… and yeah. Okay. Sounds like you’re not there. I missed you. I guess I’ll wait a little and try calling you in a while. This phone doesn’t take incoming calls, unfortunately, so–”
“I’m here! I knew that would happen. I miss you, too.” He sounded out of breath. “I miss you desperately.”
I had to process for a couple of seconds. Oh, he thought I’d said that I missed him as in I was longing for him, as opposed to I had missed reaching him by phone. Well, okay, I guess that was a misunderstanding that for once worked in our favor? “You knew what would happen?”
“That the second I walked away from the phone, you were going to call. Murphy’s Law and all that.”
“Ha. And what I was thinking when I got your machine was dammit, of course, too.”
We both chuckled a little. If you didn’t know us, you might have thought it was a kind of normal conversation. But that’s where the acting like everything was hunky dory ran out. We hit a stretch of silence then.
I decided to just try an apology. Because I really did mean it. “Look. I’m sorry if the whole moving to a cabin in the woods thing caught you by surprise. It wasn’t meant to be me running away or anything like that. But, you know, things are moving really fast and I’m doing the best I can.”
He sighed. “I know you are. But I’m still really miffed that you let your mother get between us like this.”
“It’s not her fault she’s got cancer.”
“You misunderstand me. I don’t mean her existence is getting between us. I mean she’s actively pushing us apart and I’m kind of upset that you’ve fallen for it.”
“Wait, what? What are you talking about?”
Oh, come on.” He made an exasperated noise. “Who’s idea was it to move to the woods? Who picked the cabin?”
“I did. And it was my idea.” I swear I really thought it was my idea. But come to think of it, Claire had been going through the real estate listings with me. I’d picked this one to look at first because… she’d been the most enthusiastic about it. “I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it? You’re right that I should have told you or asked you. But you also weren’t here and weren’t easily accessible. Sometimes we’re going to have to operate independently of each other, Zig. We’re going to be on separate continents some of the time. That’s just a fact.”
“Yeah, I know. I–” He sucked in a quick breath. “Wait. Is that your way of saying you’re a definite no to a Japan tour?”
“Jeezus Christ, Ziggy. I wasn’t saying anything other than the words that came out of my mouth. That’s you who means two or more things with every word, not me. And by the way, how many times do I have to say let’s not repeat what happened in South America?”
“So let’s not repeat it. Let’s figure out how to make it work. Whatever changes I have to make, I want to make them.”
It struck me then that he really believed he could change himself and maybe even the world around him enough to make it a completely different experience. But he couldn’t change me.
This wasn’t the conversation I was expecting to have, but it was the one we were having. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot, you know. About what all went wrong.” Not to mention talking with my shrink about it. “But if I can’t stay sane when you drag all the people who are my support system along, then I really don’t know what else to try.”
“How about try being healthy first,” he said. “I mean physically.”
A sudden spike of rage hit me and I slammed my hand against the glass, which startled the guy in the next phone booth over. “What do you think I’ve been saying–!” I sucked air through my teeth. “You have to stop pushing me about this, Ziggy! I don’t know when I’m going to be better! I might never be!” Oh shit, oh god, when you say it out loud like that, it just hits home so hard.
It hit both of us that hard. I started crying and so did he, though I didn’t hear it at first.
He made himself talk first. “Okay, you know what? Although it’s possible it’s true, I think the only reason you just said that is depression talking.”
“Oh, gee, I can’t imagine what on Earth might be bumming me out.” I blew my nose on a napkin from my pocket.
He didn’t snark back at me, though. He just agreed. “Exactly. It’s not a surprise. Being with your family in Tennessee was one of the most depressing experiences of my life. And I didn’t even realize it until I was out of there. Shit. I’m being too hard on you. You’ve got a million reasons to be depressed and not in your right mind.”
I remembered what Sarah had said about him going to see his shrink. I began to feel… surprisingly grounded. “Yeah, well.”
Another long silence, but in this one I was feeling like calm descended. Okay. “Are you coming back?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing.”
“I meant to Tennessee.”
“I meant to me.”
“I know you did.” I sighed. “Look. I’m here for at least a few more weeks. I’m pretty sure at some point I’ll convince Courtney to at least switch off with me. At least, I hope I can. Besides, I’m pretty sure the legal stuff I just got means I’m going to have no choice but to show up in court.”
“Jeez,” Ziggy said in his when-it-rains-it-pours voice. “Look. I’m tied up here for a few more days at least. You know what that means.”
He chuckled. “Have you looked at a calendar lately?”
“Not really, why?”
“Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, dear one.”
“Oh.” Come to think of it, the pharmacy did have a lot of red foil hearts on display and they weren’t about cardiology. “Right. I, um, didn’t get you anything.”
“I didn’t get you anything, either. I figured we should talk about whether we’re going to be the kind of couple who expects to observe that kind of tradition and if so, how.”
“What do you mean, how?”
“I mean, you know, bouquet of roses and a box of chocolates?”
“Oh, come on. You know how I feel about cliches.”
“Cliche, cli-shmay. I love roses and chocolate anyway.”
“Roses are red, all cats are grey, I love you more than I hate cliches.” I made myself smile with that one.
“Ooh, bonus points for Cure reference,” he said, and I got the feeling he was smiling, too. “Look. It’s been good for me to get away and clear my head, even if what your mother wants is to get rid of me.”
“She doesn’t want to get rid of you.” As I was saying it, though, I could hear the things she’d said. About how Ziggy wouldn’t like the bungalow, and other things. She never came right out and said I shouldn’t ask Ziggy to come stay with us, no, never something as obvious as that. But now looking at it through Ziggy’s mirror-shaded glasses I could see there was definitely a chance Claire had influenced my thinking. “I think she just doesn’t trust you, and she’s afraid you’ll influence me to make decisions that aren’t in her best interest.”
“No kidding, dear one. She’s afraid I’ll take you away from her.”
“But then why does she want you to stay away? That only increases the chances that I’ll leave to go be with you.”
“Fears don’t always make sense,” he said. “In fact, they usually don’t. If we could make sense out of them, we’d be less afraid.”
“Or at least Claire would. She doesn’t make sense of much and that’s why she’s so afraid, maybe,” I ventured. “Shit, it’s really Valentine’s Day tomorrow?”
“It really is.”
“I really do miss you,” I said then, in case he listened back to the answering machine tape and realized what I’d said earlier.
“I miss you, too. I miss you because I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Wow, that came out so easily, for both of us. More easily than it ever had. More easily than I expected given that we’d fought so recently. But it was true. Each of us had fought the realization at times in our lives, and yet each of us had come to it eventually.
“I can’t get away for a while.”
And that was where we left it for that moment. We said our goodbyes. I then called Carynne and had her arrange to fill Ziggy’s apartment with roses and chocolates the next day. She didn’t even say something sarcastic like I guess you made up, eh? or anything. Which was good because I had a feeling the arguments weren’t really over, just that neither of us wanted to fight right now, and I didn’t want to rehash the entire thing for her right then. But like I said, she didn’t even ask. She just asked me how much to spend.