small fires

Together, we open a bottle of wine, K. and I, and toast to the men we have loved and lost. “To the bullets we have dodged,” she says and we raise our glasses, laughing. I am sitting in her apartment, facing the water. Through the window, I can see lights on the bay – the boats there, the bridges.

“I think I am too nice,” she says, and we laugh again, as if that has ever been a reason for anything. She walks me through the last days of their ill-fated romance with unexpected specificity. She lists the days and dates and what transpired as if explaining the investigation of a crime (“On Monday, February 6, we…”).

I say: “I just don’t see why he couldn’t take thirty minutes to meet you downtown for coffee, to tell you in person after all this time.” She shrugs. “I like to think it’s that he was too scared to see me because he knows he’s still in love with me.” We lift our glasses again, but silently. We leave the words hanging. If we doubt this as the reason, and I think we both do, we choose not to say.

I have not seen L. in months and before she leaves for a long trip abroad, we meet for breakfast. “Are you ready?” I ask her, after we embrace, as I slide into the booth across from her. “Do you mean, logistically or psychologically?” she asks. “You pick,” I say, and we laugh. “There are so many things – little things – that I did not anticipate. There’s just so much,” she says, and it’s unclear which aspect of the planning she has chosen to address.

She and her husband are taking this trip alone. Three months of sailing. She tells me where they will stop – these islands, the names of which I have never heard. Their children now grown, and their friends, say: tell us where you will be so we can fly there to meet you.

“At first, we tried to give them dates, but it became so complicated, just like being at home, so we said no. No visitors, no deadlines, no planning. We will go as we go and land when we land.”

“That is good,” I say, and I believe it is, but I think of her daughter on the other end of the phone line, her mouth hanging open in surprise.

I see a physical therapist for my knees now and when I arrive at the office, I am ushered into a small room with a massage table and a single chair. I drape my clothes over the chair back and change into shorts so that he can watch my kneecaps tense as I walk. He has me lie down on the table, props a foam wedge beneath my knees, lifting them, and forces his fingers down the length of my thigh from hip to knee, pressing deep into the flesh – first along the top then the side. I try not to let my face register pain. “It’s going to be a little intense,” he had warned me before he began. “If it gets to be too much, you have to tell me.” I take this – oddly – as a challenge.

Later, he talks me through squats and stretches. He asks, “What are your plans for after physical therapy? What do you want to be able to do?” I suspect there might be a right answer to this question, so I say: “Get better at something else?”

“Like what?” he asks.

“I don’t know, I guess I haven’t thought about it.”

“That’s right,” he says, “most people don’t think about it. Most people just exercise for the sake of exercising.” He waves his arms and moves his torso from side to side for emphasis. “If you are not working something specific, if you don’t have something in mind, to work at, you’re just wasting your time.”

L. tells me about her visit to see her youngest daughter. About meeting the man that her daughter has been dating. “Well he was very nice, and attractive and polite, but we come to find out that he has just gotten out of prison.”

“So afterwards, we talk about it and she tells me not to worry, that they are taking it slow. She says this a few times so finally, I say: please define slow.”

The waitress brings a cup of hot water, to which L. adds her own tea bag that she has taken from a plastic bag in her purse.

She goes on: “They are practically living together, he’s there every night as far as I can tell. He says he’s in love with her, she says she’s in love with him. So, I ask her, how, exactly, are you taking it slow?”

“So she says, ‘when I tell him I love him, I don’t look him in the eye. Until I look him in the eye and tell him that I love him, that’s taking it slow.’”

Once, to a friend, I described the man I was in love with as being romantic. She looked at me quizzically, like she did not understand the term. “What do you mean,” she had asked. I described the things he said, the little gestures that I loved, but she did not seem sufficiently impressed.

“You don’t think that’s romantic?” I asked.

“Oh, sure – if it is for you,” she said, “I just think romance is so specific to individuals, you know. It’s not just this thing that exists outside of you – it’s like something you agree to make together.”

I vowed to withhold future details from her, for spite, but since then, I have found myself thinking about this, turning it over in my head, poking at it.

In the morning, there is a streak of pink in the sky. I watch it from the kitchen window. Across the yard, a man loads boxes into the trunk of his car – three cartons of the same size. After the last one, he stands back from the trunk, stares into it for a moment. A woman comes up behind him, slips her arms around his waist and he barely registers the action. He nods his head, shuts the trunk and turns around. They walk back across the parking lot together, hand in hand.

I think about the idea of romance, its specificity. About L.’s daughter and her man and the strange code they may or may not have agreed upon. About K. - how in her mind, one thing was happening, and in his, a very different thing. 

Isn’t this, in fact, one of the mysteries of love? That it is not static - not a thing that exists in itself. A continuous and dynamic set of agreements - spoken and unspoken. As if we have built a small fire with sticks in a shallow basin and now we carry it between us, tending it as we go. 

You hold here and I will hold here and together, we will run and we will trust each other not to drop it.