A Childhood Neighbor
It had been eight years since she last saw him. Elsa smiled quickly and looked away and looked back. He looked older. There was something about the way he moved, his body more angular, his gestures more certain. It made her wish she had something in her hands, a cup she could take a drink from, a purse she could open and ruffle through.
She had dreamt of him several times in the last year, dreams full of images and abrupt shifts, a sort of collage. Nolan chopping wood next to the cabin. She and Nolan swimming in the river. Her sewing a button on his shirt. Or her brother would become Nolan in a dream, or Nolan would be a tree she leaned against while reading. When she dreamed of Nolan making love to her he had no face, and this made her feel more comfortable. He was faceless, but she knew it was him. Normally, he did not stay one thing, and this was comforting as well. In the morning, she sometimes clung to these images and built on them, imagining and daydreaming as she made coffee or got dressed for work.
Of course, she had known that being married wouldn’t erase the past or eliminate attractions to other men, but she hadn’t quite expected how ridiculous her thoughts would remain. She brushed them aside, stretched her mind like a cat, to make it limber for something else, but it huddled back to him, water in a tide pool at each high tide, as though that were the only shape water could take.
He walked in her direction. Elsa glanced away and saw her husband, Cooper, talking with his sister, whose wedding gown had a small purple bloom on the bodice from a stray drop of wine.
“Nolan! Hi, hi,” Elsa smiled and extended her hand and he shook it. “Good to see you.”
“And you, I—wasn’t—so, how do you know the bride and groom?” Nolan stuck his hand in his back pocket, his posture relaxed.
“June is my sister-in-law. It’ll be three years this September.” Elsa held up her left hand, the small diamond glinting in the light.
“Congratulations. My mom told me—a few years ago. Sorry I didn’t send a card.”
“No, of course. Thank you.” Elsa smoothed the skirt of her yellow dress with her palms in a swift stroke down.
It was an early March wedding that had taken place in an old barn and the reception had begun immediately after the ceremony. Old-fashioned lanterns hung in the rafters and along the perimeter of the barn, casting an orange glow over the deep maple wood and the white tables and chairs. The barn made Elsa think of the holy family, sheltering from the cold, a rare spot in the cold world surprisingly warm, by artifice or miracle.
“Do you want a drink?” Nolan asked.
At the drink table, Nolan poured her a glass of wine and she studied his face. His red hair still had the sharp cowlick to the side of his forehead, but he had fewer freckles than before. Out in the sun less, maybe.
“What do you do these days, Nolan? Are you still building—woodworking? Like you used to?”
“Yeah, I actually went up to an Amish woodworking training program in Pennsylvania last year. So yeah—That’s what I do now. Furniture mostly.”
“I’d love to see some of your recent work. Do you have your own business?”
“In a rough way, yeah. Not my own shop, or storefront, I guess you’d say. I build and sell out of my house. I’m working on developing the business end of things right now.”
An older couple on the dance floor performed an intricate swing dance, twisting each other and leaning in sync. Elsa watched them so she wouldn’t look at Nolan’s arms. His shirt was rolled up to the forearm and she kept imagining him sanding down a piece of wood or lifting hay with a pitchfork, the way he used to. She wondered if she was having these feelings now because she was young, only twenty-eight, but could feel herself aging, could hear in her inner ear the years tick by, like an expiration she was slowly approaching.
Though she was married, she felt single. Cooper worked long hours at the law firm where he was a freshly minted attorney, constantly trying to establish himself and compete for a better case. She had begun to realize that she felt more alone than she ever did before she was married.
Elsa’s father greeted Nolan and sat next to them. “Are you still painting?” Nolan asked Elsa’s father.
“Never have had much time for it. I had to repair the roof today. Always something.” There was a pause and Elsa’s father watched the cellist. A woman’s silk scarf rippled as she danced with her partner; it fluttered behind her like a broken wing.
“Elsa, remember when you were seven—the time you and your brother were swimming in the Boyer River and an undercurrent caught you?”
Elsa’s pulse quickened; her neck warmed. Ever since Elsa’s mother had left Elsa’s father, his voice got thick and melancholy unexpectedly. Elsa leaned back in her chair. “You saw me go under from the field and ran in and pulled me out.”
“Time stopped,” he said. “When I was young I wanted every moment to be like that. A pulling you out of the water and being able to remember the shade of the grass, the texture of its crisp, half-dried paper. How can we pay attention when roofs are always leaking?”
Years ago, long before her mother left, Elsa had once heard her father say to her mother: “You want too much from me. I can’t pay attention to you the way you want.”
Elsa took a long drink of wine and glanced at Nolan from the corner of her eye. He was twisting his wine glass from its stem on the table, staring at it with a faraway look.
“But that’s art for you, isn’t it, Elsa?” Elsa’s father asked, gazing at her. “She had a piece accepted at a gallery in Chicago,” he told Nolan.
“Congratulations,” Nolan said. He reached out to squeeze Elsa’s hand but stopping midway and returning to his wine glass. “Which piece?”
“An impressionistic piece in acrylic—of a cabin next to a river.” She suddenly wished she had lied, made something else up. Nolan was looking at her as though a second, invisible eyelid had opened, leaving his eye now really open, staring at her in his irritating way that said, I know you.
“She brought another one for a gift. Elsa you should show him—” her father said, gesturing toward the gift table.
“In a gift bag,” her father interjected.
“I’d like to see it,” Nolan said.
Elsa swallowed a sigh and stood up. They took the bag from the gift table into the women’s restroom, where the bride and groom wouldn’t see them opening the gift, and Elsa lifted the painting out of the bag. It was an acrylic of the interior of a makeshift shed, with a dirt floor and an open door facing scouring rush, cottonwoods, and a small river. It was in muted colors, similar to Wyeth’s “Master Bedroom.” Elsa cringed looking at her painting; her fear of being derivative rose up in her and made her toes curl.
After she had a mild success—an acceptance into a good gallery, a sale from her website—she had nightmares that night of being trapped in an old house, running down a hallway, opening doors. Each door she opened faced a wall with a painting that had her name on it, but that was clearly done by someone else.
“I know it just looks like regionalism—” Elsa said, pulling the painting toward herself to put it back in the bag.
“No,” Nolan said and gently grasped her wrist to still her, without taking his eyes off the painting. “I like it.” Nolan stared at the painting for another minute. “You make it better than I imagined it. I’m jealous.”
“To make something imagined look both real and better than real. It’s both that cabin on a summer day and it isn’t—it’s something more. You made it something more.”
Eleven years before, when they were seventeen, Nolan had waited for Elsa in the forest behind her home. Everything was grayscale except his hair, red, against the white snow and black trees in the fog and early daylight. The cottonwoods formed a black shape that represented nothing, but seemed like one thing at one time and another thing at another time.
The sound of Elsa’s footsteps in the snow and the calls of geese on Boyer River filled her ears like slowly blooming flowers. A solitary figure in his gray wool coat, Nolan looked like a stranger isolated among the trees and snow. Behind her, her brother was in the stable, saddling his gray horse for a morning ride. A few aunts, uncles, and cousins had already arrived at the house, gifts in arms, opening the door to the smell of cedar and sugar cookies, baked ham and roasted almonds.
Nolan had taped a note to her bedroom window that read, “meet me in the forest at seven this morning.” It was just like him to leave a note like that, assuming she would see it on the morning he left it. Nolan lived half a mile away, on a corn farm near Elsa’s family’s cattle ranch.
“Sorry,” Elsa said when she reached him. “Have you been waiting long?”
“No.” He took her by the hand and kissed her forehead. The wings of geese darkened the snow with their shadows as they flew overhead. A flood last summer from the Missouri had spread into Boyer River, leaving sediment dusted over the ground and trunks of trees once it had receded.
“Okay, close your eyes,” Nolan said. Nolan unraveled her plaid scarf from her neck and wrapped it around her eyes and led her through the snow, until the geese at the bank of the river grew louder.
When he untied the scarf and leaned into her and whispered, “Merry Christmas,” she saw a wood tree swing, made of red cedar wood, hanging from the branch of an oak tree.
Elsa leaned back into him, wrapped his arm around her waist and bit her lip. She shook her head. “Nolan…” she turned and took his face in her palms and kissed him.
She ran over to the swing and leapt onto it. He followed and sat beside her, the swing large enough for two, the slats of wood thick and varnished, gleaming in the sunlight. The swing faced the river and they watched the birds taking flight and diving low above the water.
Elsa’s mind and body buzzed. She had once been flattered when a boy simply offered to give her a ride home during a snowstorm.
“I thought it would be a nice place to hang out. For both of us,” Nolan said.
“It’s perfect. How long have you been working on it?” Elsa traced her finger along the grain of the wood.
Nolan shrugged. “Awhile. I was worried you’d find it before I was finished. I know you like riding out here.” Nolan paused. “Working on it made me think of the cabin I’d like to build.”
Elsa glanced at him. “Yeah?”
Over the past year they had talked, lightly at first, but then more seriously, of a cabin in the woods, a place to call their own. In her mind, it seemed like light and warmth in a cold, dark space. Nolan talked about building it, how he had always wanted to build something larger than furniture. Over the months, it became more and more real: they gave it properties and characteristics, considered its placement and its interior. It would face the river, they decided. It would be made of oak and have wood floors and a tin roof. The furniture would be simple and spare: a bed, a table, a few shelves. There would be no electricity or plumbing. There had to be limits to what they could create, and the limits made their imagining more pleasing.
The cabin was similar to how they had viewed their future when they were young: something they could imagine and consider carefully as to how they would dictate its creation. A sort of object they could hold apart from themselves, something they could accept or reject, like a purchase at a store. At the time, it symbolized raw possibility and made Elsa feel free and expansive. But now it weighed her down, the image of the cabin firmly lodged in her mind, unchanging, casting a real shadow over other thoughts, thoughts on events that had actually happened and had a physical existence.
The band played a ballad, an Irish tune, with deep notes from the cello and the melody led by the harmonica. Nolan asked her to dance and with his hand on the small of her back, led her out to the dance floor. She had wanted to dance with him all night, to feel his hand at her waist, to be in the uncomfortable position of having to look in his face.
Her skin buzzed with a mild burn, her palms slightly damp. She hoped he wouldn’t notice. Looking at Nolan, considering his familiar jaw line, his familiar smell, she wondered if she could ever paint his portrait. The trouble was the difference between seeing and imagining, letting outward vision match the inner vision. In her worst paintings, she had given a subject attributes not natural or real to it.
“You still dance all the time?” he asked.
Elsa frowned. “I used to dance all the time?”
“It seemed that way.” Nolan smiled, and lifted their arms and turned her gently and pulled her back to him.
“Are you seeing anyone?” Elsa asked him.
Nolan shrugged. “Not really.”
For a moment Elsa thought he’d say, “I still think of you.” She wanted him to say it and didn’t want him to. As in her dreams, she remained divided, wanting to still be connected to him, and yet holding back, keeping her distance.
“Your painting made me think of the cabin we always talked about,” he said. Elsa stiffened.
“I’m amazed we talked so much about that cabin for so long,” she said with a laugh. She wondered if now he dismissed the cabin as an extravagant gesture.
He shrugged. “Seemed like a fun idea at the time. I don’t think I would have done it justice though, I think I’m more suited for working on smaller pieces. Pieces that go in houses, not the houses themselves.”
“Why is that?”
“It’s hard to see things from the inside. Several years back I worked with a construction company on houses. I felt out of control, like I was guessing the whole time.”
Her brother, Joe, had once asked her if she was still in touch with Nolan, but his question wasn’t honest; it was sideways, trying to pry open a door with a crowbar.
This was five years ago, when Elsa was home during a break from the art academy. She was hanging out with Joe and his friends at a local bar. Nolan was working as a roofer in a nearby town at the time. Joe and his friends were trading stories of Nolan’s sexual escapades he had bragged about to them: three college girls he had slept with the week before, one-night stands leaving behind their hair extensions, wild parties with quick hookups.
“He’s making it up, the poser,” Joe and his friends agreed. “He’s not getting it as much as he says.” Then they laughed and glanced at Elsa and apologized, as though they had forgotten her presence and hadn’t gotten some pleasure out of talking about it in her presence. She had given them an impassive face and drained her beer. She was fairly certain they had no idea how close she and Nolan were—they likely thought they were just another brief high school couple and two neighbor kids who used to spend a lot of time playing together down by the river, in the weeds, hunting for ducks, or building forts in trees.
The song ended and they walked back to their table. Nolan asked, “What are you thinking about?”
“About how quickly you changed. That stage you went through…” Elsa said. She was thinking in particular about the time they were walking beside the soybean rows, along a dirt road, carrying fishing poles to a little pond at the end of the lane. It was mid-afternoon during the fall of their senior year of high school, about eight months after he had given her the tree swing. Sweat was building and dripping from her hairline on the usually warm day and she was talking about colleges and art schools, agonizing over her applications. Suddenly, Nolan had turned toward her and sneered, “You’re so banal. All you care about is what other people think.”
It wasn’t the only time he had taken a moment of her vulnerability as an opening for attack, but it was somehow the one she remembered the most. When he was a child he was kindhearted and tender, prone to nightmares and occasional bouts of shyness and anger. During their senior year that part of his personality—flashes of anger and introversion, dramatic mood swings, fake, projected behavior—all heightened, as if a new part of him was hatching.
But maybe it wasn’t his behavior that was fake and heightened. Now, standing here with him after all these years, she felt that same buried personality in him, the parts of him she had wanted to ignore. Nolan made the tree swing by the river, but she made their relationship in her mind. While she mulled over their relationship, she was tinkering with it like an object she could create for her own pleasure.
The band switched to a livelier set and children joined in the dancing, their small shoes flapping against the hardwood floor of the barn. One little girl ran into a large pot of winter jasmine, the flowers shaking from impact, and the little girl started to cry.
“This sounds like the beginning of an interrogation,” Nolan said.
Elsa was dismayed by how quickly they could fall into the same patterns of argument. Her attacking, him retreating. She desperately wanted to believe they had both grown up.
“I don’t mean it like that. It was just… an odd time. When we lost touch,” said Elsa.
“You changed too, you know,” he said, looking out at the dancers, his face hard. “All you’d talk about is your work, your future plans. You weren’t present.”
Elsa glared at him. “I wasn’t what you wanted, is what you mean.”
Nolan turned his eyes back to her and his stare chilled her. His anger still spread quickly like an avalanche and covered everything in sight.
“Don’t act like you know me. Don’t act like you ever knew me.”
“You’re right, I don’t know you, Nolan. I don’t care to.” Elsa stood up, almost tripping over the table leg, and walked away from him.
The barn felt warm and the lanterns, which previously seemed to emit a soft glow, now seemed to be humidity lamps, making Elsa feel sticky and dizzy. She needed a cigarette. Elsa grabbed her white wool coat from the coat rack and changed out of her matching yellow heels into her snow boots. A shoe shelf lined the wall next to the door and heavy snow boots all lay inside, resting like sleeping pigeons.
Outside it was not frigid, only chilly. In front of her lay an expanse of snow covering dead grass, with cottonwoods a quarter of a mile away growing along the river.
She walked across the snowy field toward the cottonwoods. Sumac grew closer to the river; it looked violent and ancient, growing red among the white snow and dark brown trunks of dried winter trees. The river was frozen and thin, really more of a stream; perhaps another tributary of the Missouri.
Elsa pulled a cigarette out of her clutch, lit it, and took a drag. She wondered if the river was frozen all the way through, with no undercurrent under the ice still carrying fish, snails, small rocks, along its winding course. That seemed the main difference in rivers—not their colors or their shape, both of which changed each season—but whether they could be stilled during a harsh winter.
Elsa heard footsteps behind her and glanced over her shoulder. Nolan was quiet, staring at her for a moment. She felt self-conscious and had a vision of herself: eyes smudged with eyeliner, long dark hair matted against the trunk she was leaning against, her white wool coat brushed with dirt.
“You always liked the woods,” he said as he plucked the cigarette from her fingers, took a drag and handed it back. “I’m surprised we ended up in the same city. Didn’t think I’d see you again. I’m glad I did.”
Elsa looked out across the river at cottonwoods on the other side of the bank. Their lean branches were familiar, their way of stretching into the sky, and leaning off to the side just slightly, enough to look burdened and buoyed by hope. She wanted to ask him if he ever thought of a future between them, yet she knew it would be better to abstain. She had the impression she would regret whichever choice she made. Her regret could be built on an illusion, but the choice she made would be real, with real consequences.
“You know, you’re lucky you know what you want and go for it,” Nolan said. “I’ve always envied that about you.”
“How in the world does it seem like I know what I want and have gotten it?”
“Nice husband. Moving forward with your art career. You’ve always wanted both those things.”
“Do you remember that beaver skeleton we found on the bank that summer?”
A cormorant swooped low over the river, the last rays of sunlight softening its dark plumage into velvet.
“I still have its teeth in my top dresser drawer.”
Nolan smiled and gestured for her to hand him the cigarette. “Doesn’t surprise me. You always like to keep things. You’re probably a hoarder these days.”
At nine when Elsa saw the beaver skeleton she was shocked by how small and delicate it looked, shrunken like a crescent moon, and she pulled its two front teeth from its skull and was delighted with her find. It somehow seemed romantic and valuable to her. A treasure like anything else that has been threatened and still remains.
“Remember that August when you stole a stalk of my mother’s rhubarb and I chased you to the river?” Nolan asked.
“When I chased you I stopped and slid between the barbed wires of a farmer’s fence instead of leaping over it. To slow down. I hoped I wouldn’t catch you.”
Elsa snubbed the cigarette against the tree trunk and walked out to the river, startling a few geese into flight.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I want to try and see if the river is frozen all the way through.”
“I don’t think you can tell by standing on it. Elsa—come back. It may not be safe.”
Elsa loved Nolan in a distant way, like loving a place you once went as a child, remembering the sounds, smells, colors, and wishing you could visit it again, but knowing that if you returned to the place, it wouldn’t be the same place. Your memory had changed it, had made it over into something else.
She stepped among the scouring rush and onto the ice. She always had felt clean and clear standing in the middle of a frozen river, as if she could finally get her thoughts aligned. Here, on the ice, framed by the cottonwoods and the geese, she had the feeling that she wouldn’t dream of Nolan again, or if she did, it would be a dream of a person she didn’t recognize.
Nolan stepped out on to the ice behind her and walked toward her.
Elsa saw a deep shadow or some dark form in the ice. She walked several steps toward the opposite bank and saw at her feet a dead deer frozen in the river, turned on its side, the profile of its face defined as a sculpture, its single eye open, its stomach split wide, the red still visible through the ice, intestines, a dark red organ, spilling out, frozen against her stomach like a half-borne child erupting from her womb. Nolan gently took her hand, pulled her a few steps back, walked in front of her and placed his foot over its open eye. A chill fell through her veins, as if Nolan had snuffed the life from it a second time, as if somehow it was possible to be further erased after you had died, as if there was no final erasure, only a sequence of fading.