Act of Love
“These are pit toilets,” she says, standing outside his car window, tapping her foot, drumming her fingers on the roof, and waiting like she expected a solution. Right now, this second, chop chop, was how she said it and maybe how she meant it.
He takes a deep breath. That’s how things have been between them for six weeks now, she says something and he finds any way he can to avoid saying what only two months before he would’ve said without a second thought.
They’ve stopped at a rest area on Interstate 80 in western Nebraska, a landscape of gentle swells with the occasional patchwork field of sunflowers or sorghum giving scale to the seemingly endless fields of wheat. Back when this trip still belonged to him, he’d planned to be off the Interstate by now, cutting diagonally north towards South Dakota, but her presence was an unexpected complication, and anything that holds the faintest whiff of enjoyment for its own sake feels crass and unimaginable in her company. Not that a little old-fashioned fun wouldn’t be good for the both of them, but they are way too skittish and defensive with each other to allow anything approaching a shared intimacy. It is as if they’ve both reached an unspoken agreement that to breach the wall of hostility that’s developed between them would be an embarrassing acknowledgement of a complete lack of will and to simply split would show an equally humiliating inability to persevere. So they continue in limbo, sleeping in the same bed each night while carefully making sure no parts of their bodies touch. Only late at night, when one or both of them have fallen asleep, do they drift back together—well-worn material finds its natural shape—and they frequently wake up holding each other. On the night before they left on this trip, he’d even pushed things a bit, lifted her night shirt and pulled down his shorts until they were skin on skin, then he’d reached around and she’d opened her legs to accommodate his hand, but when he whispered “Baby” in a plaintive tone full of desire, regret, grief, need—in short, everything he’d been feeling since it had happened—she’d gone board stiff and folded into herself. Then she got up and showered.
“I do appreciate the heads up, honey,” he says, struggling to find a neutral-sounding response to her toilet crisis.
“I don’t care about your heads up,” she says.
“Uhhh, OK. Is there an implication I’m missing?”
“I don’t care about what you’re missing. I refuse to use a pit toilet, that’s all.”
“No es problemo,” he says in what he hopes is a close approximation of a generous tone. “We’ll just find a gas station.”
“I don’t want your fake good humor or your stupid Mexican accent. And I don’t want to spend hours driving out here looking for some filthy gas station toilet that smells even worse than a concrete hole full of human shit. Besides, I can’t wait.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“Say? God, nothing. Nothing at all. Just come with me and keep watch. I’m going in the woods.”
“Fuck, Bobby, please.”
“But I don’t see a tree. I haven’t seen a tree in like, hours.”
Back when it happened, there was a moment when he thought things were going to be OK. She was sitting up on the kitchen floor, blood outlining the spaces between her teeth with this feral grin on her face—and he flashed on a vivid image of the two of them naked and flailing away at each other while her blood rose on the air like a mist and settled over them, spurring the intensity of their coupling. This vision lasted only a couple of seconds, but in that time, he saw a new path to the promised land, a re-invention of near-Biblical proportions. Yes, he thought, I’ve delivered a long-overdue psychic re-adjustment to our relationship—the tension is finally broken and we’ve been released to walk hand in hand (so to speak) to the next stage of our life together.
The come-down to reality from those few seconds was about as hard a fall as he’s ever taken, and in the six weeks since, it’s those moments that have haunted him, even more than the punch itself. If he’d finally found a way to announce himself as both brutal and clueless, it is the monumental size of the misread that makes him wonder if there is any point in trying to hold this relationship together. It may be why he stays too, though he’s lived long enough to understand that certain motivations are better left unexamined.
“Big problems require bold gestures,” he’d said to her in one of his many attempts to explain himself.
“Is that really what you think? That we were having big problems?” she said. “I thought we were fine and if you really think we were having big problems, then I’ll know we weren’t actually okay, and I just didn’t see it.”
Was she right? Wasn’t serious relationship strife a given in a situation where a man who hasn’t raised a fist to another person, male or female, since he was twelve years old hauls off and decks his girlfriend? Wasn’t that the very definition of a big problem? And as he thought about it, he realized the answer very well could be no. Things had been mostly good between them. They were getting along as always with each other and most of the time, he was glad she was around. It’s true they didn’t much discuss the things most five-year couples in their thirties discuss—marriage, kids, the future—and it’s true he’d been thinking some lately about where he’d be in ten years—where he’d be living, what he’d be doing—and that she wasn’t always a part of his imagined future. But sometimes she was, maybe more often than not. And he wasn’t at all sure if any of that added up to even a problem, much less a big one.
“I know what’s going on now,” she said. “I know we’ve got big problems now. But then? So tell me and tell me the fucking truth because I really need to understand how you were thinking about us then.”
Gloria and Bobby met as people on the respective fringes of two large social groups brought together when the central person in each became involved with their counterpart. Interaction between the groups intensified after the original couple, Darlene and William, got married and Gloria and Bobby found themselves at the same parties, dinners and outdoor barbecues as often as once a week. Maybe it was inevitable—they were both thirty and alone and almost all their other friends had coupled up by then. Whatever the reason, they slid into it easily, taking a vacation together at two months and moving in at six and for the next two years, social get-togethers came along at a steady pace. As a couple, they were much more integral to the social group than they ever had been as singles because the dinner and cocktail parties tended to be couples only. They were never considered one of those fated couples (like Darlene and William) who appear to have spent their entire lives waiting until they met the other. There was nothing ordained about their coming together—“Gloria and Bobby” was a phrase rarely used to signify a single entity and for the first two years, others in the group acted surprised each time they showed up together, as if their continued coupling was spoiling some long agreed-upon group evaluation, as if they were only delaying the inevitable. Over time, Gloria and Bobby used this as a way to bond with each other, to pretend theirs was an outlaw love, opposed by all, understood by no one but themselves.
They don’t know us, she’d say. They don’t see us together when we’re alone and hanging out.
When we’re having fun, he agreed. Fooling around, making dinner, cleaning our place, watching TV. That’s where real lives are lived.
What they don’t know could fill ten books, she’d say.
A hundred books, he’d say. A thousand.
Darlene was the first in their group to get pregnant and right on cue, the other couples followed, all but Gloria and Bobby, their childless status seemingly verifying what people had been saying all along: that they weren’t serious, that they stayed together because it was easier than splitting, that they were both frightened of being alone, a charge that tended to bring out a defensiveness in them.
Who isn’t? Bobby said one late night.
Right, Gloria said. Who isn’t afraid of that? Everyone is.
Not that he didn’t sometimes have his doubts. Before Gloria, he’d been in love twice—at least love was professed eagerly and often in both cases—and he’d had two long-term relationships besides those, and with all four women, there’d been an intense and amazing physical passion that lasted anywhere from two months to a year. It was like a living thing with a will all its own and it couldn’t be denied even if they wanted to. And even long after he’d settled into a perfunctory type of sex life with these women, the fact that he’d been able to have that initial round of passion made all the irksome tics, dishonesties, and stupidities somehow tolerable. He wasn’t completely sure he even liked a couple of the women he’d loved, but he trusted the physical, trusted the body understood something the mind did not.
But Gloria and Bobby had never been that way with each other. Sex the first time was fine and within a week, they had settled into a routine typical of a long-term couple, something she seemed to take comfort in, as if she was relieved to be past that edgy, impulsive first stage and into a more dependable place. Sex was never a chore and over time, it became much better than that. It still is, or was until six weeks ago. What’s more, he reckons they’re well in the upper percentages sex-frequency-wise for five-year couples their age, but still it festers. That sort of early relationship lust is something no one can ever take away from a couple, and people—maybe lots of them…maybe most of them—build long, unhappy marriages from it. Bobby understands the argument that his and Gloria’s is the better way and that judging a long-term relationship on sexual passion in the first few months is sophomoric and male in the extreme, but still it festers. And now, he has to ask himself, if they were incapable of that sort of passion about each other once, how did they manage to work things up to the point where punches were thrown? That was the real question and God help him, he did see a glimmer of hope in it. Maybe they never have fucked like animals, but at least they are finally acting like them. Or he is, anyway.
He’s only barely paying attention to the road when it happens. It’s that kind of highway, that kind of night with a mist heavy enough that distant lights appear as grainy yellow smudges floating above an invisible horizon line. He can’t remember the last time he passed another car and with Gloria either asleep or pretending to be for hours now, he’s settled into a state where he forgets for long minutes he’s even driving and sometimes, he imagines he’s pulled back on the steering wheel, lifted the front end and drifted off the road, bushwhacking his way cross-country, rising over the hills and floating high above tiny wooden model ranch houses surrounded by plastic trees.
The thud itself sounds under water, distant, like it only barely has anything to do with him. He has an awful thrashing moment like a quadriplegic coming out of a dream of motion, his body refusing to respond, and he reacts as a man buried alive might, arching his back, whipping his head, kicking his feet, his body writhing, arms flailing—he may even have screamed—and yet somehow as he brings everything to a stop in the middle of the highway, Gloria finds a way to continue sleeping.
The punch had really been in two steps—their anger management counselor continues to insist on calling it two punches—the first a simple pop to the face, then while she teetered, he stepped forward and shoved her to the ground, the back of her head banging hard against the refrigerator. It happened so fast it was over before he had any chance to think. After it became clear she wasn’t going to leave him over it, the push to the floor (Gloria preferred calling it a push too, perhaps because she was embarrassed to have been punched even once) became a central issue. Lashing out in anger once is understandable (if unacceptable, as their court-appointed counselor quickly pointed out, as if Bobby might take the counselor’s continued silence as tacit approval of the single-punch method of relationship readjustment), but a second violent act immediately following the first constituted something much more calculated and disturbing (goes the theory). It was the shove that convinced him to seek movement at all costs—his job, their apartment, his probation, their relationship all hung in the balance—to keep driving until he found a space where what he felt that night made sense. It isn’t what Gloria thinks and it isn’t what their counselor believes. It isn’t the shove that scares him—the shove was one of the most heroic things he’s ever done, a triumph of common sense over enraged fury. What he hasn’t told anyone, what he’s fearful of admitting even to himself, is that he pushed her to the ground because in that instant, he felt ready to punch her again. And again and again. He’d stepped over an invisible line and for one terrifying and exhilarating moment, he wasn’t sure he wanted to step back. He was like a drowning man who decides to give up the horror of the struggle and just let go. All his life, he’s been drawn to real-life tales of paralyzing tragedy and grand adventure, of people who seek danger or have danger thrust upon them, people who find ways into a place with real consequences, where life hangs in the balance. He imagined these moments of adrenaline as pure and empty where every bit of baggage we all carry—the anxieties, doubts, weaknesses, desires—flees screaming in anticipation of impact. What he finds amazing isn’t that it felt pretty much like that—it did—but that he is even capable of experiencing real danger, much less causing it. Some part of him—tiny, he hopes, he isn’t a cruel person—is thrilled he found a way to work himself into a state where he hauled off and decked someone he loves. Yes, he thinks, I do love her, though he can’t deny he’s partly come to this conclusion because of the punch, i.e., he must feel strongly about her to do what he did. He knows this isn’t rational thinking.
Understandably, he’s been hesitant to confess all of this to Gloria or to their counselor. They might change his diagnosis from neurotic to psychotic, and all the energy and attention would shift away from what is going on between them to what is going on within him. His way of working through it was to plan this trip, take some time and space apart from each other—set the dials back to zero—something he was sure she also needed, except the day before he was to leave, she decided to go along and he wasn’t comfortable even attempting to mount an argument against it.
He jams the shifter into park and is out on the roadway in a flash, the way someone might exit a burning car, sucking up great gulps of air, trying to calm himself. He moves in the opposite direction of whatever thudded, straddling the center stripe of the highway. He’s unable to see the highway divider line or even his hand in front of him, but still he keeps walking, reassured by the solid feel of asphalt under his feet. His heart rate slows, his breathing turns shallow, his stomach calms. Well behind him now, the car and its headlights have been nearly swallowed, appearing to be no more than a fuzzy dot on an endless vacuum-black canvas. Even the stars have been blotted out. The silence seems as absolute as the darkness until he becomes aware of a general din that’s everywhere and nowhere, like the sound leaves make in the barest breeze. Feet shuffling through grass! Dozens of feet, seemingly on either side of the highway—something is out there and though he knows no animal grazing these fields has any interest in him, the sense that he’s adrift and surrounded pushes him back towards the car.
Still, he’s hesitant to just get back in and continue on. With Gloria seemingly committed to sleeping through the rest of the trip, being inside the car is just as oppressive as being out and at least out, he’s able to move about. He believes she’s realized it was a major mistake to come and has decided to bail and drift into her own world, aided by Dramamine and a steady ingestion of his Vicodin, a remnant of a particularly nasty root canal episode he was going through at the time of the punch and push. In fact, he believes the throbbing pain he was feeling in a top left molar and his growing frustration with a dentist booked weeks in advance—he’d fit Bobby into fifteen-minute slots, shoot him up with Lidocaine, scrape out the top of the blown nerve, and seal it up, a fix that lasted about a week—had a lot to do with him lashing out, though he’s smart enough not to push this as an excuse. Like a potential parolee, he figures he has no hope of getting out unless he takes complete responsibility for his crime.
One thing’s going to change, he decides on the walk back: he’s not going to allow her to just sleep her way through this entire trip. Scream, curse, leave, all are preferable to the suffocating silence. He leans in through the window.
“Wake up, baby, we’re going to get this thing going right now.” She’s not there.
"What are you yelling about?" Gloria says, somewhere in the dark behind the car.
"I’m not yelling. Nothing at all. I’m ready to go. Whatever’s back there is dead. We should go before more come."
"Before more come? What the hell? She's not dead. Get over here."
"She's not dead. You ran her over."
How would you know, he begins to say, then thinks better of it. “I didn't mean to."
She shines a flashlight first in his face, then towards the fence where there’s a brown, lumpy shape sitting in spotty roadside grass.
"Have you been crying?” she says.
"No... well, no."
He steps gingerly towards her. The animal isn't dead, it's a deer of some kind, its entire body leans hard on the bulging fence, outlining little square patterns of gray fur. Its beautiful head lies flat on the ground, the strength of its breath moves blades of grass but its legs are askew in odd twist-tie directions, its body mushy and broken. Gloria slowly strokes the animal's head and the deer takes it though its eyes remain wild, its rear thighs tensing and contracting but the legs are broken in so many places, it makes no difference. Gloria cries quietly above the animal, she shifts her head so her tears fall onto the deer's mouth, the deer moves its tongue in response to the salt.
"We've got to do something. Put her out of her misery," Gloria says in a cracking voice.
In the distance two lights appear, pale and separated against the growing dawn. They seem to float high above the horizon like a ghost ship. Or a UFO. Great, Bobby thinks, a close encounter. That's perfect.
"Goddammit Bobby, you hit her, figure something out."
"Something's coming, some sort of, I don't know, it’s like a ship or something. It's fucking freaky."
"It's a truck. Wave it down. Maybe they'll have a gun."
Slowly, the lights drop gracefully to ground level and the truck materializes out of the darkness. Bobby waves, the truck slows. The driver leans over and rolls down the passenger window.
"Problem?" The man has a thick gray beard with a rim of tobacco brown around his lips and a filthy hat too small for his head. The truck is a flatbed, caked with a red dust. A hairy white dog rides on the back, its legs splayed, braced against the wind and movement.
"I hit this animal," Bobby says.
"We just want to put it out of its misery." Gloria approaches the truck. "You got a gun? Maybe you could do that for us."
"Did you slow down before you hit it?" the man says.
Yeah, of course, Bobby thinks, do I look like some sort of monster? I mean, I would have if I'd been looking.
"Yes, of course, I got on the brakes hard.”
"There's yer problem. What you need is to accelerate, lift up your front end, and suck that animal right under the bumper. Do that and everything will be fine. The animal will be hamburger and nothing will happen to your car."
"But this animal is still alive," Gloria pleads.
Bobby nods his head.
"You remember what I said. Accelerate. Done it dozens of times myself, my old truck's never spent a day in the shop."
"But this animal is still alive," Bobby says.
“Please,” Gloria says, openly crying now. The man looks at Bobby, then at Gloria, a moment’s confusion passes over his face.
“You sure your car’s OK?” he says. Bobby can only muster a single nod. “Well, then, you folks take care." The dog wags its tail in anticipation of leaving, mouth open, tongue lolling in what appears to be a smile, face aimed into the coming wind. Then the man's off, pulling a curtain of black with him.
"A knife, you used to have a knife," Gloria says.
Good God, Bobby thinks, she wants me to slit its throat. "At home," he lies.
"We got some rope?"
"I got my table leg in the back. But no way I'm beating this thing to death. You can if you want, just give me some warning. I don't want to see that.”
"If we got her to the road, we could run over her head," Gloria says. But she's trembling and her voice comes out a series of retches. He makes her sit up on the trunk of their car and he carefully wipes her face. She leans one hand on his shoulder, he buries his face in her neck, she grabs a handful of his hair and opens her legs so they can get chest-to-chest.
“Oh sweetie,” he whispers.
“I don’t know anything,” she says, still crying. “Anything. I don’t. Nothing at all.”
“Don’t,” she says.
“But I don’t.”
“Please, Bobby. Please.” Using his thumbs on either side of her face, he pulls her hair behind her ears, she keeps her chin down so he can’t look at her. He kisses the top of her head, then her forehead, then her nose. He runs his hand under her shirt, lightly touching her bare back along the length of her spine, she shivers. He lifts her chin and leans in and kisses her on the lips, using his tongue to push inside. She doesn’t stop him and even returns the kiss, but when he’s done, he knows it’s the wrong thing at the wrong moment. Worse than that, he realizes no more than thirty seconds ago an opportunity had presented itself, and he not only failed to recognize it, he’d made things worse. He leans back to give her an opening, hoping she won’t take it, but she does, completing a half turn to free herself. She approaches the deer, careful not to shine the flashlight in its eyes, and he knows there’s nothing for him here. He walks to the front of the car, scoots up on the hood, and settles against the window, head on the roof so he’s looking straight up, the warmth and vibration of the running engine a comfort. The top of the sun clears the eastern hills and begins gobbling the night. Dots appear high overhead against the brightening sky, circling as if caught in an ocean current, birds on the wing maybe. Or retina floaters. The radio has been giving regular updates on a major forest fire north of Yellowstone. Soon he’ll feel the sun on his face, he’ll find out if they’re close enough to see the Montana fires.
It was their two-year anniversary gift to each other, a driving vacation through France, the morning of their last full day and he was already up and out; fluid levels checked on their rented Renault, croissants and coffee on the dash, engine running, parked in front of a non-descript pension in an odd nothing of a town, Ronchamp, half a day’s drive east of Paris, two blocks of dreary fifteenth-century storefronts mostly unoccupied, three children in uniform pushing a metal hoop with a stick, a scattering of locals, none under sixty, sitting and smoking, and piped in accordion music played through tinny horn speakers on every lamppost. The night before when they’d arrived, the music was less funereal, though still tilting towards the depressive, and several grown men appeared to be chasing cars and barking madly, an oddity that was never explained, mostly because Gloria and Bobby didn’t speak much French and the pension manager spoke even less English.
When she emerged—day pack, sensible hat, brown shorts with hiking boots, showing plenty of those wonderful, tan legs—he knew something was up. She leaned in, kissed him on the forehead and turned off the car, pocketing the keys.
“This is a day hike, Drivey Boy. Gloria and Bobby power only.” After Bobby made a big show of changing shoes and obsessing over what to bring, they walked right down the middle of the street, and if Bobby was antsy and squirmy, tugging at his clothing, and feeling tiny rocks in his shoes, Gloria sold the hike from the beginning, eating her croissant and sipping her coffee, smiling, waving, and most annoyingly, getting smiles and waves back from the grouping of surly geriatric Frenchmen guarding the town’s single café, the same men who ten minutes before had gone silent then hyper-talkative when he entered the café. On the way out, he was pretty sure one of them hooted.
Five minutes and they were out into the French countryside and while Bobby kept up a veneer of complaining—when Gloria insisted on getting a photo of him standing next to a World War I battlefield marker, he said, “If they can’t even bother to cut the weeds so people can read it, why should we want a photo?” —he felt comfortable here. So like where he grew up in a small, hilly section of glacial moraine in southern Indiana called Swedish Hills—a patchwork of weedy fields broken up by small groves of trees, well-defined fence rows and wooded mounds, some big enough to be called hills.
When they reached Cathedral Hill, the highest in any direction, there was clear as day a winding road leading to the top. Bobby tried to control himself—he was being a pill and he knew it—but couldn’t resist saying, “Thank God we didn’t drive, the France rural highway weed and trash tour sure was worth it.” She flipped him the finger and kept going, finding a little dirt path that switchbacked its way up the side of the hill, so steep and overgrown in places they had to pull themselves up tree to tree. At the top, Gloria emerged with legs bloodied, Bobby sucking air behind.
But the cathedral! He’d never seen anything like it, sitting in the expansive flattop of the hill, like a looming ocean liner about to take flight with two curving roof lines coming to a prow and a tower that resembled nothing so much as a modernist farm silo. It was the most outrageous building he’d ever seen, plopped down in the medieval French countryside. Inside, a priest with arm brace canes made his way around the altar with a lurching grace, lighting votive candles with a shaking hand and chanting to himself. Light streamed through windows set back in beveled openings—blues, reds, stained glass, clear—filling the space with warm, watery color, evidence of a fervency and faith so all-consuming, it was like stepping into a time before science and reason, when Gods and monsters ruled the earth.
They sat on a pew for an hour, not talking, holding hands, and outside, still in thrall, they found a derelict trellis with overgrown grapes and ate their lunch in the grass. He carefully removed her boots and socks, rubbed oil into the bottoms of her feet and between her toes, she read aloud the opening chapter of The Ginger Man, he cleaned the scratches on her legs with a bandana wetted with drinking water, kissing each when done. Busloads of tourists arrived, parents set up blanket picnics in the long grass, children ran barefoot, the cathedral bells rang out. Gloria sat between his legs, her back to his chest, his hand resting just inside the waistband of her shorts, tickling her pubic hair, threatening to go further. Clouds to the east cleared, revealing the shadow line of the distant Alps, sunlight reflecting off tiled rooftops spread out far below them. They both felt pleasantly adrift, lost in time, two blips on an infinite temporal landscape, the coming together of this exact moment a product of a million small things happening right after another million small things.
Gloria cries out, thick and wet, and Bobby is on his feet and charging on instinct before gaining control and slowing near the back end of the car. In the growing light, the deer seems to be rocking up and down, trying to stand. Righting itself. Could it be that he was wrong about the animal? He only took a quick look and he’s surely no expert. Maybe it was just stunned and now, head cleared of cobwebs, it will struggle to its feet, gather itself, and make a graceful leap over the fence and join all the other shuffling animals. He moves closer, determined to be at Gloria’s side for the blessed event.
She’s not there. On the ground is a single shaking brown hulk, rocking and moaning, the beam of her flashlight slicing the grass around her.
"Help me, you asshole," she says.
She has her arms around the deer's neck, and an absurd shiver of jealousy runs through him, then he realizes she's choking the animal. The deer shudders and shakes but really isn't putting up much of a struggle.
"Please, Bobby, I'm not strong enough." She's gagging and crying. He can't imagine a time when he'll ever be ready for something like this. In an instant, he understands something about Gloria and him. He's not up to it, it's as simple as that. He's not up to her. He backs up, turns, he doesn’t want to see this. Light touches the far horizon, the smoke from the distant fires revealed, rolling out in immense, curving waves, the wind gathering it into a single contrail aiming north. It has a catastrophic scale, like a mushroom cloud or a supercell storm, a signal that the world is turning over. Or has it already flipped? A million small things happening after a million small things?
Slowly, slowly, he moves to her, wraps his legs around hers, his chest tight against her back, his cheek touching hers, using his face to wipe her tears away, feeling her push back into him, clasping his hands together around hers, around the deer's neck, locked in a beautiful three-way embrace. With a heartbreaking delicacy, she moves her lips to his and together, they choke the life out of the poor broken creature.