She could have been wrong, but it seemed like him – that tall, narrow frame, the way his shoulders hunched forward, just slightly.
He looked up. “Yeah?” He’d been leaning against a tree, taking a drag off a cigarette. He straightened his back and looked at her like he had nothing to hide.
“Oh, come on. It hasn’t been that long,” Veronica said, now self-conscious of her outfit, how her wide-brimmed hat and oversized sunglasses might have fooled him.
“Over ten years, I’d say. That’s long enough.”
Perhaps the straw hat and the glasses weren’t anything to someone you knew that well. Whose body knew your body. “I know I’ve gained some weight,” she said before she could stop herself, trying not to sound sheepish.
“Your hair is red.” He dropped the cigarette and then crushed it out beneath the heel of his shoe – white Chuck Taylor tennis shoes, now reddish brown with New Mexico clay and splattered with paint.
She saw he was looking at the ponytail trailing down the left front of her tank top. He had always been observant. A painter’s eye. “It’s been red for nearly a decade.”
“It’s new to me,” he said.
“You must do the Sunday tour,” she said. Sundays, all museums were free to New Mexican residents, and the less religious ones made a religion out of going.
“Something like that. What are you doing for lunch?” He pushed himself away from the tree and closer to her.
She raised her hands, palms up, and then burst into tears. Her grief came like that, in surprising waves she couldn’t control.
He reached out as if to hug her but looked to her for her consent.
She nodded vigorously. “Hank, my husband,” she said as he clasped her with a fierceness that was comforting. “The funeral was last week.”
Tom just hung on tighter; his face, when they finally unlocked their bodies, was full of concern.
They ate lunch at Las Palmas, the fancy place just off the plaza where the gurgling fountain in the middle of a desert and the waiters with thick European accents made Veronica feel special, that she was part of a class to which she didn’t really belong. He had picked up the tab even though they both knew she had more money.
A week later, they sat next to one another on the front bench of Veronica’s station wagon. It was five o’clock. They were on a dirt road that dipped down into and then climbed the Rio Grande canyon. They had decided to take the back way while it was still light, so they could marvel at the view. She didn’t know if she had suggested the scenic route because she wanted, at some level, to make sure they had something to do.
Veronica felt aware of her body as she sat next to him; she was practically twice his size. She had easily gained twenty pounds since their parting. Her forties. That was the culprit. More wine and cheese, less running. And Hank. Well, he’d liked her any way. It was not a surprise that she’d outlasted him. He was twenty years her senior, but they hadn’t expected it to happen so soon or so fast. She’d been prepared the day she married him for what that age difference might mean. She remembered telling her best friend at the time,
“If it’s diapers and a wheelchair next month, I’m ready.” But he’d been so healthy. For years, he’d walked the lower regions of the ski valley with her and ridden along the rim of the canyon on his horse. It wasn’t that she didn’t know it could happen. It was that she didn’t really think it would happen to them.
He had a pain in his side through the winter. The following winter, he was in a hospital bed in their living room. That spring, he was gone.
Up out of the canyon now, the road seemed to stretch on through the flats of sage, a view of the Pedernal in the distance. It had been some time since she’d been on this road, but she liked it. The smell of sage filled the car, and as usual, her eyes started to tear and itch. She was used to this though. She had been in New Mexico long enough to know this is what her body thought of sage. Just as they came through Talpa, a town that consisted of a post office, a few trailers, and smallish, dilapidated houses, a bald eagle, perched on a rabbit carcass at the edge of the road, looked up to meet her gaze.
She remembered the first time she’d come to New Mexico. She thought she might as well have landed on the moon. She’d never seen anything like it: those miles and miles of sagebrush. Of course, she hadn’t even known the state motto, land of enchantment, until she saw it on the license plates.
She’d been nineteen, on a road trip West with her college roommate to drop off some furniture at the roommate’s brother’s place in Los Angeles. When she thought back to ponder why they had taken the southern route, she had no idea. It had been a spontaneous decision at the time, and yet, look at how much of her life had been affected by that decision. She could have been living in Delaware, down the street from her parents, in the middle of some awful suburban sprawl, her best chance of seeing a rabbit at a trendy new restaurant, on her plate, flanked by carrots and a dollop of mashed potatoes. Fortunately, that wasn’t how life had happened for her.
“O’Keefe said if she painted the Pedernal enough times, God would let her have it.” That was Tom, pulling her up out of her reverie. And there it was, majestic and gorgeous. Did it really seem purple to her, Veronica wondered, or was it that she’d seen those O’Keefe paintings so many times that it seemed that way now? Veronica practically knew those paintings by heart. In New Mexico, in Abique, where O’Keefe had eventually bought Ghost Ranch, there had been no rules, only that mountain that asked O’Keefe every day in a thousand ways to paint it.
“What about me?” Veronica suddenly wanted to know. It had come out before she’d had a chance to think about whether or not she should say it.
“What about you?”
“Did God say anything like that to you?”
“What do you mean?” Tom shifted in his seat.
“Did God tell you that if you painted me enough times that he would let you have me?”
She was out on a limb now.
“God didn’t tell me anything. God is the paintbrush.” He paused. “Was I Buddhist when we were together?” He turned away from her, looking out the side window.
“I have no idea. I remember you meditated a lot. First thing in the morning.” Small moments of their time together were beginning to resurface. She remembered wanting to have sex in the morning, and he would never consent until after meditation. Sometimes then, when she was reading with her tea, she would no longer be interested. But she didn’t like sex late at night before sleeping. Most of the time, she was too tired. That was after the art degree, when she was working for the forest service, clearing brush on trails, and her back ached nearly all of the time. That was before she’d moved over to historic preservation, before she’d quit with Hank’s encouragement and taken up knitting and sponge painting.
“I still have some of those pictures of you. They’ve been in shows. One of them is in a gallery in Santa Fe, and another was bought by a private collector.”
They were abstract enough that Veronica didn’t care. Bright reds, turquoise blues, disarming yellows. Carribean colors. If you looked, you could tell it was a woman, but the mood of the painting had more presence than who she was. She imagined it – hanging in the entryway of some orthopedic surgeon’s home. “I’m probably one of many, huh?” she said slyly, waiting for him to protest, but he didn’t.
“You’re one of a few,” he said finally, and then, “Oh, look.”
There was the turn. A battered, wood sign said Ojo Caliente. It was the name of the town. Then, there was a billboard that read Ojo Caliente, home of the natural Mineral Springs, right in half a mile. She hadn’t told Tom she’d gone to the springs regularly with Hank, once every year or two. More often, she’d gone alone down to the undeveloped ones on the river, but then, as she grew older, she was scared sometimes by the people who frequented it: men with dark tans and long beards who offered her baskets of peyote. Of course, she was sure they hadn’t meant her harm, but easily, she could turn what was probably an innocent situation into a headline: Government Worker Drugged and Raped. Body Recovered in River.
She didn’t know if going to Ojo Caliente would make her think of Hank. Everything did. And everything didn’t. He wasn’t here anymore, but memories and the fact that sometimes she could feel his presence kept him closer to her than when he’d been wasting away in that slim bed in the living room. Then, she could see him beneath those taught folds of skin, hear his voice, then just a whisper, but it was like he was already gone. It didn’t matter what she did during this time, she decided. Her job was to simply get through it.
When they pulled up, the families who had been there for the day were walking towards their cars or the restaurant. She and Tom sauntered up the gravel walk from the parking lot to the gate. “It looks like they’ve changed things,” Veronica commented. It was obvious there was some kind of construction going on. Wooden stakes stuck out of the ground at odd intervals, and the sidewalk was still framed with white string, as if the cement had been freshly poured.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been here,” Tom commented. “Decades.” Veronica didn’t think they had ever been there together, that she could remember. When they entered the small, carpeted hut stocked with robes and waterbottles, Tom paid for them before Veronica could get a credit card out of her purse. A dark-skinned girl no more than sixteen handed each of them a towel. Soft mood music played, the same type of music that had played last week when her mother-in-law drove her into town and paid for her to have one of the seventy-five minute facials.
In the dressing room, Veronica eyed herself cautiously in the mirror as she folded her clothes and stacked them in the moss-green locker. The changing room was busy. Women who had already soaked walked around naked like this was the Greek baths. She didn’t have that kind of confidence. Sure, maybe ten years ago. Maybe when she’d spent most of the day in her hiking boots. When the size of her shorts was half of what it was now. She took one last look in the mirror, reluctantly. What would he think? She did look different. So much could change in ten years. To Hank, she was always a “young thing,” no matter what. Before going outside to meet Tom by the Iron pool, where they’d agreed to soak first, she wrapped the towel around her waist, even though it wasn’t long enough or wide enough to cover much.
In the almost-dark, with the cool air hitting all that vulnerable skin, she felt like an enormous sea creature in her rust-colored, one-piece suit. She knew her bulging thighs were bright white, and that she could not attribute her enormous breasts only to genetic predisposition. She had been so slim, so fit, she was sure, the last time she had been with Tom. All that work outside, even if she had been constantly exhausted. Hank had always liked it after she had put on the weight. He said things like, “something to hold onto.” He called her “a woman of substance,” and she knew he was not just referring to her mind.
Tom was already over by the large boulder looming out of one of the corners of the pool. A biker couple, it seemed from their tattoos, kissed and rocked back and forth in another corner. Veronica waded in cautiously, abandoning her towel at the last possible moment. She sat farthest away from Tom and closed her eyes, feeling the warm water soak into her bones. She hoped that maybe the water could carry away the hurt. All of Hank’s relatives had stayed at her house even though Hank had officially said he didn’t want a funeral. It happened without her consent, just a wave of events through which people nibbled salmon pate and sipped coffee. But they were gone now. “You can stay in town. Just go to the Holiday Inn,” she pleaded with them. Red, the horse in the back pasture, who neighed for a ride or an apple, was company enough.
It wasn’t dark yet, but Veronica knew that when it was, the pools would feel like some ancient ritual, which of course they were. The owners of Ojo Caliente claimed the Anasazi had come south from the canyons to the pools to soak for health benefits and ritual cleansing. In the iron pool, she and Tom watched as the sky darkened from blue to indigo to ink-black, and then the appearance of pinpoints of light.
Although no children were allowed in the pools at night, two boys who must have just squeezed over the age limit waded in. They splashed each other, and even though one of them appeared to be deaf, they were still loud. She moved, no, floated, closer to Tom. “Having fun?” he asked, and she felt something on her side. A wave? The spring itself? Her own anxiousness? Or had it been his hand?
When another biker couple wearing bandanas and sporting tattoos and black bathing suits entered the pool, Tom suggested they move on, to the new area the woman at the front desk had told them about.
Next to this pool was a large, empty pool the color of the clay in the hills behind Veronica’s house. The concrete around the pool was also red, and clay-covered lounges were arranged in a circle next to a hose. “For mud baths,”
Tom said. “You cover yourself with mud, bake in the sun, and then have someone spray it off you. Can’t do it at night. Supposed to get rid of the toxins in your skin.”
Veronica nodded. He knew odd things. He was unpredictable in that way. She couldn’t have guessed what he would and wouldn’t know.
The cliffs were lit from below, showing the tiny burrows in the rock birds had made. A short wall only a couple of feet high separated the cliffs from the pools, and Veronica half expected a fox or a coyote to wander in and drink from the pool. Tom’s hand was wandering now—she was sure—from her waist, to her thigh, to her buttocks. He didn’t seem to mind the weight. Flashes went off from inside an adobe structure just next to the pools, and sparks flew out the top into the night air. “Private pools,” Tom said. And someone was taking pictures. “Next time,” he added, referring, she thought, to the possibility of their coming back and getting their own pool, of their taking naked pictures of one another next to a roaring kiva fire. Veronica felt like she should mind how forward he was being, making it clear he wanted to sleep with her. She was newly widowed, after all, and she was in grief. It didn’t matter that she had been expecting it. Her grief had been unpredictable. She’d thought she would cry when she took Red on a rim walk, but then, she hadn’t been able to. But going into the health food store and standing at the soup bar, the last food Hank had eaten, made her weep. Now? Now she just felt numb, and anything else was better.
Tom was under the waterfall, where the hot water emerged. She stood against a wall and let the stars in, trying to dissociate herself from this place, trying to reach her inner self, a place, she wanted to think, where there was no grief, only deep relief.
Suddenly, a man in a neat, green polo shirt arrived, stood at the edge of the pool, and pointed to his watch. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to get out now.” When she emerged from the pool, she felt like she might be made of meringue. Full of air.
When women in the dressing room were talking about waxing and all-natural shampoo, she didn’t feel angry at them like she might have hours or days before. Instead, she offered to share her lotion with them. “It has real vanilla bean in it,” she said to the thin woman about her age with the long, dark hair. At the end of the night, she hadn’t felt angry at the boys at the hottest pool, timing each other how long they could stay in, and then calling to their father across the concrete patio. Her skin had gone from feeling like sand paper, some dry-skin reaction to the grief, eczema that had been acting up since Hank started hospice, to feeling like chocolate mousse.
When she walked out through the curtains of the mint and chamomile-scented dressing room and met Tom at the exit, Tom grabbed her hand and her bag and said, “I’ll drive back.”
He put an arm around her waist as they walked to the car. They had already discussed that Tom would return to Santa Fe at the end of the night. It would be one a.m. by the time he got back, but Tom said he would be fine. “I’m a painter. I’m used to odd hours.”
Still, Veronica almost felt like she’d had too much to drink, telling him, “I’m not so sure you should be driving back to Santa Fe. I think it’s dangerous.”
Tom acted as if all the thigh-stroking in the pool hadn’t happened, that she wasn’t inviting him to spend the night. “I’ll be fine. I’ve done it a hundred times.” Why wouldn’t he just say he’d stay?
The drive back was as hypnotic as the water. The car seemed to drift over the smooth road, and they hardly talked. Once, Tom interrupted the silence to ask her if she saw colors when she dreamed. “Why?” She asked.
“You told me once, ten years ago, that you dreamed in black and white, and I wondered if that had changed.”
Perhaps a few hours before, she would have attacked him, said, “What are you, an amateur psychologist?” but she was in a state of calm now. She looked down at her thighs, the jean fabric around them too tight. “I don’t know if I was telling the truth.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you were just so attracted to those bright colors, and I wanted to challenge you. I needed you to know that not everyone saw the world the way you did. You know, those colors are very strong.” She couldn’t even believe she remembered this, that she had lied to him outright, deliberately. It wasn’t the first time she’d done it. In her mind, fact and fiction formed some gradual continuum.
He was quiet.
“It was just that you were so bright, so vivid, and then with those paintings. Maybe I was jealous. They made me feel small and gray, and I guess that’s how it came out.”
Just as he looked over to reassure her, taking one of his hands off the wheel and patting her hand with it, she saw an enormous elk by the side of the road, waiting, patiently, to cross.
“Ohmygod,” she said.
“What?” he said, glancing out the window, but he had missed it because he had been looking at her instead of at the road. She could have sworn the majestic face somehow resembled Hank’s.
“An elk. A huge elk,” she said. What else could she say really? “I’m glad it didn’t step out,” she added, knowing that it could have been one of those fatalities or near fatalities she read about regularly in the Taos paper. Still, she wasn’t sure it was real. Could it have been a vision Hank had sent from the other side? She didn’t know.
“Let’s stop,” he said. “It’s hard for me to look at the stars while I’m driving, and they’re amazing out here. They’ll be totally different after we get back to town.”
In the middle of a dark stretch, he simply pulled off the road onto the gravel shoulder and stopped the car.
Maybe it hadn’t been there at all, just a vision, an image she wanted to hang on to, but the antlers and the eyes and what she imagined to be its hot, rank body stayed with her still. If she had reached up to feel it. . . . Of course, she couldn’t have. It was outside the car. The car had slid right past it. She felt an ache, empty, hard, and dark.
It was so quiet, the only sounds they heard the ones they made as they leaned against the hood of the car and its popping as it cooled. Veronica said she sometimes forgot the way the stars became more brilliant in the middle of nowhere. She hadn’t been camping in ages.
It was easy to forget. All the same, she looked up to one of the least spoiled skies. She thought of all the usual clichés – diamonds, the milky way looking like frosting or milk pouring out of a pitcher. She thought about how her summer camp counselor back in Delaware had said, “Imagine when our ancestors, the Cro Magnons, roamed the earth. They looked up and saw the same stars.” Even if it was fascinating and true, the comment was so sentimental it had embarrassed her, and though she’d wanted the other campers to be embarrassed with her, they weren’t. They’d nodded lamely in agreement. “Are you really going to drive home?” she asked, moving the upper part of her body in a strange way that even she didn’t understand: an invitation.
He looked at her, leaned back against the car, and pulled her down with him, kissing her.
His lips were dry. He was probably dehydrated. They hadn’t been drinking enough water. All the same, they were the first lips she’d kissed since Hank, and even then, she had only kissed his cheeks, his forehead, his hands in those last weeks. Tom’s hand brushed her ass, and she felt sure he would spend the night.
On the home stretch, jackrabbits jumped in front of the car like they were on a suicide mission, and Tom had to dodge them. They were not small things, their bodies almost a foot long. Here and there, she and Tom could see the corpses of their fellow species who weren’t so lucky. Veronica thought about how fate seemed to continually intervene in her life. Here – was this a sign? The universe was saying it was o.k.? She should enjoy herself? It had been so long.
Still, Hank had been a gardener. He had strong arms and hands, but their physical life had been something they’d taken for granted, something they always said they should have done more once Hank got too sick, and with all the medications was no longer possible.
In the morning, frost shimmered on everything. A cold front had moved in overnight. It was July, but it was still the mountains. Veronica started a fire in the wood stove and turned on the coffee pot. She wasn’t sure she had done the right thing. Sure, last night had been great. Tom had liked the enormous sea creature, and she hadn’t felt embarrassed after a while, even with the lights on. But there were still remnants of Hank’s long stay in their living room lying about: the spare bedroom littered with the small cans of ensure and his catheter that Hospice had neglected to take.
Tom walked into the kitchen. He was wearing the same clothes he had been wearing the night before – worn jeans and a green and mustard colored plaid shirt. He looked older, she thought, and the stubble on his chin was apparent in a way it hadn’t been the night before. She poured a cup of coffee and handed it to him. He accepted it, setting it down on the table. He rubbed his arms. “Cold out, huh?” he said.
“I’ve got a fire going. It might take a little while, but it will warm up. It never heats up in the mountains until around ten.”
He didn’t say anything.
She disappeared down the hall into the bedroom. She opened the sweater drawer of Hank’s dresser. What would Hank want? He wanted her to move on, to find someone new. He’d told her that before he died. But not this soon. The smell of him lingered. She picked out a sweater Hank had hardly worn. She’d knit it for him, but for whatever reason, he had worn it only a couple of times. It was fair isle, light blue and ivory.
She closed the drawer and walked back down the hallway. “Here,” she said, thrusting the sweater out in front of her.
“Oh, you don’t have to,” Tom said, crossing his legs and then uncrossing them.
“I think he wore it once,” she said, “and you’re cold. Go ahead.”
He looked up at her hesitantly. His thin flannel shirt was open at the neck.
“Wear it,” she demanded, and he took it, wriggling into it.
“Surprised?” Tom said, bending his knees as if to sit down, straightening them, and then finally sitting down.
He was a strange one, no doubt about that. And nervous this morning. “What?”
“Just all this. I’m sure it wasn’t what you thought this week would be.”
“No,” she said, taking her mug off the counter and sitting down across the table from him, her back to the stove.
“Me neither,” he said.
She wondered if they would see each other again, if they would become regular lovers. Would it end badly, the way it had last time? He’d said he had to go to Albuquerque on business and never called her again. Then, some time after that, she’d met Hank. But here he was, Tom Knorr, and she’d slept with him again.
“I need to get going,” he said.
“Albuquerque?” she asked, trying to sound casual.
He sighed. “I was going through a rough time then.”
“At least you didn’t sleep with one of your models or something. That would have been worse.”
“I’m not going to Albuquerque,” he said. “Well, I am, but I’m not. Not like last time. I just have to deliver some pieces to a gallery.”
How old was he, fifty? She couldn’t believe she’d done this, gotten herself involved with this guy again. “Go ahead. Just go.”
“Veronica. It’s been ten years.”
She avoided looking up at him. “Sure,” she said. “You won’t need that sweater down in Albuquerque,” she said. “It’ll be too hot.”
“Stop it,” he said, grabbing her by the wrist. “I’m going to drive down to Albuquerque, but I’m going to come back here tonight.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, but she was the one who was being ridiculous, she knew. “I didn’t even make it for you,” she said in confusion.
He leaned across the table and kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll bring dinner.”
He stood up, put his coffee cup on the counter, turned, and walked outside. He closed the door hurriedly, angrily. As Tom walked to his truck, he seemed almost to disappear, to be swallowed up in the waving grasses, to grow insignificant in her uneven, red dirt driveway.
She wanted to tell Hank about it. How it had only been a week and she’d gone and messed things up for herself. She was always doing things like this before she’d met Hank. And then she’d had ten calm years. More calm than any others. She should be alone, she thought, but being alone was lonely. She didn’t even have Tom’s cell number to tell him not to come back. But she knew that come late afternoon, she would cave in to the loneliness. If she had gone first, she knew Hank would be gardening, designing a new porch, taking Red down the canyon. But maybe, she reminded herself, he’d have a few hard days, a few impossible months.
Maybe she was too raw to care about anyone, anything else. Tom Knorr could drop off the face of the earth and die for all she cared. Then, she gasped for air as she felt her eyes moisten. The flood was coming, she knew that: a wave of tears that might end as quickly as it had started. She sipped her coffee to steady herself.
The fire was warming up the kitchen. That was the way it went on these cold mornings: she would be freezing, layered with blankets, sipping coffee, until she’d piled too many logs on the fire. Then, when it really got going, the little kitchen turned into a furnace, and she’d be wandering around in a camisole and shorts with her hair up, her tendrils sticky with sweat. This morning, she’d put too many logs on. Soon, it would be too hot, and there would be nothing she could do.
Andrea Clark Mason
Andrea Clark Mason’s work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, High Desert Journal, High Country News, Permafrost, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Denver, Colorado. You may learn more about her at her web site: http://www.andreaclarkmason.com.
Photo: Sarah Ann Loreth, “”The Standpoint of Daily Life.”