This is what she did before she stepped in front of the semi.

She walked into the bar, six or seven steps behind the waitress, three ahead of him. He was talking on his cell phone. She walked with her head down, an apology to the waitress who was nearly done with her shift and hoping to hurry it by walking faster.

She took the booth side under the TV, he the one facing it. She did this because of the one time she didn’t. The TV was tuned to a soccer game. She anticipated his scowl before it appeared and almost allowed herself a smile. He told the waitress to change the channel to “real football.” She said she couldn’t do that but she could find them another booth near another TV if they didn’t mind waiting. He minded.

She wore not-skinny jeans and a heather gray V-neck sweatshirt decorated with an orange C. The sweatshirt was at least five sizes too big, but it wasn’t his. He was barely her height and skinny enough to wear her clothes, which he had but only one time and only then because he was drunk and she was passed out on the sofa and he just wanted to know.

Every time she set her wine glass on the table the sweatshirt slipped over her left shoulder, revealing a black bra strap. She tugged the sweatshirt back into place like she was trying to teach it a lesson.

She wasn’t wearing makeup. Her eyes were tired and her skin pale and freckled. Her shoulder-length dirty blonde hair was tied in back with a rubber band. Escaped strands kept falling in front of her face but she didn’t scold them like she did the sweatshirt.

When they’d first met three years earlier he’d told her she reminded him of Charlize Theron and he’d said it again tonight but he was thinking of her role in Monster and she’d never seen it so she mistakenly thought he was being kind.

Her baked chicken was under-baked and she shouldn’t have mentioned it but she did in a sort of half-whispered dictation, another thing added to a secret list. This time he was listening so he called the waitress over and told her to fix it (and his overcooked steak, too) or he’d tweet about how bad the restaurant was and he has over seven thousand followers. The waitress apologized and took the chicken and the steak and the angry words back to the kitchen.

He wore sunglasses the whole time, not to hide his bloodshot eyes (they were) but because he was as vain as he was clueless about how stupid he looked wearing sunglasses indoors.

“They look good on me,” he’d said when he bought them a month earlier at a store that sold only sunglasses. It wasn’t a question, though he’d expected an answer. She’d said “yes” then. It wasn't her first lie. He bought her a pair a week later. They cost half of what he’d spent on his, but that was still ten times more than she’d ever spent on sunglasses. She snapped the frame in half the next day quite by accident, but he doesn’t know it yet.

He checked his messages six times between the complaint and the delivery of the new food. He noted this aloud to the waitress (who had not been cut after all and would quit later that night after the third kitchen mistake), then experienced a rare, strange joy when he silently compared the checking of messages to the tapping of impatient fingers and recognized this as metaphor.

He looked at her once with an expression that surprised her. He shook his head slowly, disbelieving something. She thought she remembered the look from when they were first dating. The “how did I get so lucky?” look. The one that preceded his comparison of her to Charlize Theron in The Cider House Rules. But it quickly faded into something like dismay. She brushed the hair from her face and took another bite of chicken.

Halfway through the second attempt at supper, he got up to use the bathroom or take a phone call or both and she looked across the aisle. She smiled politely and I tried to smile back in kind but all I could manage was a sad half-smile because honesty had filled the vacuum he’d left behind.

It was then that I whispered those three words. I hadn’t planned to say anything. I never say anything. I am an observer, not an intruder.

But the words came out and I couldn’t retrieve them.

“You are beautiful.”

There was no invitation in the words. I didn’t want to start a conversation. I didn’t want to fall in love with her or kiss her or sleep with her. I didn’t want anything but to say those words and I didn't even want to do that until they'd already come out.

I saw her catch her breath then and wondered if she’d been looking at me or the picture window beyond. The sun was setting and the sky was purple and orange and yellow and a few colors I hadn’t seen before.

He came back a moment later and said it was time to go and she nearly told him that she’d come for the blueberry pie and couldn’t they at least get some to go. Instead, she slid soundlessly out of the booth and put on her coat and gathered her purse and walked past him, out the door next to the picture window and into the parking lot. By the time he was done paying the bill, she had kicked off her heels. By the time he was stepping off the curb, she was almost at the highway. He walked to his car with his phone at his ear while two strangers chased after her. She stepped in front of the semi just as he opened the driver’s side door.

He turned when the horn sounded and stood there next to his just-washed car while she rolled into the median and came to a stop with her legs bent the wrong way and her body bloodied and her dirty blonde hair tied in back with a rubber band.

He stood there a long time. Long enough to notice a smudge on the hood. Long enough to start to feel something like sadness.

I might be wrong about some of the details. I’m not sure if he ever wore her clothes or if blueberry pie was her favorite dessert. But I am certain about some things.

The guy was an asshole.

The woman stepped in front of a semi.

And I didn’t say “you are beautiful” loud enough.


The old wagon is abandoned to a hill behind her grandfather’s house. Wild grass grows up through the handle, winding around it like ownership. We take pictures at sunrise when the morning light turns red paint to blood and rust to scabs. My photos are gentle, respectful and a little bit sad. Hers are sharp-edged and dangerous.

In the afternoon we picnic down by the thinning creek that divides her grandfather’s farm from neighboring undeveloped lands. Trees line either side of stream like dedicated servants holding sheltering umbrellas.

We spread a quilt under the sun, inviting what the trees deny. I want to take pictures of the trees. She shrugs and opens a bottle of wine.

Her glass is empty but for a small button of red swimming above the stem when I return with a camera full of nothing.

Trees are boring unless you know their story, she says.

So tell me one of their stories, I say.

She hesitates, then pours a second glass and takes a long sip.

There is a tree, not here, but upstream a bit. She doesn’t point, but holds a finger to her lips. Do you hear it? she asks.

I hear the trickle of the water and a whisper of wind through the leaves, then in the distance a roll of thunder that sounds like it’s wrapped in a blanket.

No, I say.

Listen harder, she says.

She leaves the story in the uncertain air and lies down on her back, balancing her wine glass on her stomach. A warm breeze blows straw-blonde hair across her cheeks and ruffles the hem of her sundress. Tiny daisies printed on yellow cotton slow-dance in the wind, then relax to tease more of her bare legs into the sun.

I aim my camera at her and click a succession of photos, close-ups that begin at her unpainted toenails and travel up her thin legs, past her hips, to small hands wrapped around crystal and crimson. I pause at her chest to watch her breathe, remembering the moonlit silhouette of her naked body from a dozen nights and a thousand dreams. Then I continue the photographic journey to her shoulders, bare but for a few lonely freckle constellations. Her lips are slightly parted, her eyes closed. A bead of sweat drips down her cheek. Or a tear.

The light here is terrible, she says. I will be washed out and pale. I will be a ghost.

I know.

Sometimes I see her that way, like the pinched wrinkles on a forsaken bed sheet. Or the smell of raspberries in an empty kitchen. Sometimes she is light without shadows. Sometimes only shadows.

This tree upstream, she says, is missing a limb.

And then she waits again. I write a dozen stories in my head. A child climbs out over the stream to catch a butterfly and the branch snaps. This is the day he learns to swim. Or doesn’t. A hunter shoots at a squirrel and misses, splintering wood instead. A desperate man ties a noose. Disease attacks. Lightning strikes.

I set the camera down and lean over to kiss her. She inhales just before our lips meet, and exhales a sigh. There is no one more beautiful in any light.

I’m going to find the tree, I say, and start to get up.

No, she says. She nearly spills her wine when she reaches out to grab my hand. Stay.

I take the glass from her and set it on the picnic basket, then lie down on my side next to her. I rest a hand on her stomach and she covers it with both of hers.

The tree wants to forget, she says. A photograph makes it remember.

I kiss her shoulder and breathe in the only scent that speaks to me of safety. Of home.

Okay, I say.

Hours pass. The storm turns away and looks for a different picnic to interrupt. Clouds drift by in a parade of deformed animals. A giraffe with a monkey’s head. A legless lion. An elephant without a trunk. The elephant’s trunk.

You know what word I like, she says. I thought she was asleep. Nevertheless.

She doesn’t explain. She doesn’t have to. I’d thought the very same thing once.

Another hour passes.

Do you hear that dog barking in the distance, she asks.

Everything out here is in the distance, I say. I think I am being clever.

Not everything, she says.

She folds the quilt and I pack up the picnic basket. We climb the hill hand in hand while I write a story of all new things and she writes one on top of old things.

When we get to the abandoned wagon, she stops. The sun has nearly set and the light coming through tall grass is painting streaks across the side like tiger stripes. I reach for my camera.

She drops my hand, walks over to the wagon and kicks it with her bare foot. The she kicks it again and again and again. Four times. Five, six, seven. She kicks it until the grass lets go and the wagon flips end over end and a wheel flies off.

Her breathing slows and she hobbles back to me. Her foot is bloody. I bend down to wipe it with my shirt. I don’t ask why. She had already answered that question.

It was her father’s wagon.

I kiss her foot, then stand and hold her in my arms until the sun goes down and the tiger light fades and the wagon disappears into darkness.


There is a giant clock built into the high white wall above the concourse hallway. The brass hour hand is at least three feet long, the minute hand nearly twice that. There are no numbers, just twelve evenly-spaced dots where the numbers should be.

He leans against the construction wall and ponders this, imagining a conversation around a mahogany table big enough for a dozen, but occupied by two.

"What about a huge clock?"
"A clock?"
"Something big and bold would be perfect in that space."
"A clock right above the arrival egress? Why? So people can see just how late the planes are?"
"Do you have to be so cynical?"
"I work in city government. It's my job."
"I think people would appreciate a clock."
"Fine, but no second hand."
"I wasn't planning on…"
"Second hands make people nervous. Reminds them of school."
"No second hand."
"And no numbers either. Just lines or dots or maybe tiny airplanes."
"Why no numbers?"
"Because that makes it harder to tell the time."
"Which is obviously the point of a clock…"
"Hey, you're a designer. Aren't you people all about form over function? Just do something grand and artistic and barely clock-like."
"We could save a bunch of money and just paint the time right on the wall. It would be right twice a day…"
"Now you're thinking."
"I was being sarcastic."
"You were speaking my language."

He counts a dozen travelers staring at cell phones and wonders if their children know how to read a clock face. He looks over at the arrivals hallway. A lone figure in regionally appropriate clothing carefully chosen to appear casual and welcoming (jeans, western shirt and an oversized cowboy hat) stands next to the “No Entry” sign, facing an empty hall. This will change soon.

They come in waves. Not predictable waves, like the ocean, every seventh larger than the previous six.

Some are ripples. The commuter jet crowd. Families who aren’t in a hurry.

Some are tsunamis.

He pauses on that word, tsunami. He used to love that word, the way the “t” gently pushes the “s” to the front of the mouth, sacrificing itself for the sake of a clever spelling. But joy has been squeezed out of the word. By Indonesia. And Japan. And heartache.

The first wave is a ripple. Two flight attendants shoot into the atrium with the rhythmic shoe-tap of certain destination, their suitcases trailing like reluctantly obedient children. Then comes a man in an ancient brown wool suit and matching hat. He is a man out of time. Or oblivious to it.

A husband appears, scanning the congregated masses held captive by red ropes and fear of the TSA. The man finds his wife and the stress of a dozen days away melts away in recognition. She is still his. They will drive home in silence, he thinks. Not because they have nothing to say. Because there is so much.

He looks away when they kiss.

A group of tourists is next. A Japanese man behind the rope raises a small American flag and calls out to them. They answer with nods and waves and he becomes a benevolent pied piper, leading them to the starting gate of an American adventure near the Avis counter.

And then a surge. Fifty or more pour out of the gateway, some pausing to search for familiar faces, others dodging the pausers to head straight to baggage claim.

Among the pausers, a woman about his own age. Thirtysomething. She is wearing a white gathered silk shirt, khaki green skirt and sandals. Her dirty blonde hair is a frazzled mess, kinked by unseasonal humidity, flattened by an unexpected nap. Her skin is that of someone who pleads daily with the sun for a special exemption from harmful UV rays. From a dozen feet away, he can see the freckles on her neck. He imagines the constellations.

A patchwork leather bag hangs from her right shoulder, a muted rainbow of yellows and blues and reds. She grips a book with her left hand. He strains to read the title, but it is pressed against her hip. God hears his plea and she is jostled by a man who doesn’t stop to apologize.

The book lands face up.

The Art of Racing in the Rain. He smiles.

She picks up the book at looks directly at him. Blue eyes. Denim blue. And then she does the unexpected. She walks right up to him.

“Are you the person I’m looking for?” she says. Her words tumble out like jacks across a tile floor. “I mean…” she blushes, “I’m looking for Tom. Are you Tom?”

He is not Tom.

“Not today,” he says. “Yesterday I was Tom. But today I’m Jeff.” This brings her perfect, crooked smile.

“Sorry,” she says, “You look sorta like him. I mean like his picture. I’ve only seen his picture.”

“Great book,” he says, and points at it.

“Oh, I know. Don’t you just love it? But so heartbreaking…”

Before he can queue up an appropriate response, she spies him over his shoulder.


Tom is handsome. Tom is late. Tom is walking toward her with brisk steps and apologetic eyes. She mouths “sorry” with soft, unpainted lips, then turns and walks toward Tom. They share an awkward hug. Tom is smitten. He can’t take his eyes off of her.

They begin to walk away. Tom reaches for her hand, she gives him the book instead. He looks at it, she says something and he shakes his head.

Just before they reach the hallway that leads to baggage claim, she glances back over her shoulder and smiles.

You look sorta like him.

He turns to face the arrival concourse, leans back against the construction wall and watches. An hour later, the giant clock built into the high white wall tells him it’s time to go. He walks a little slower than usual to the bus stop. He lets two buses go by before climbing up the familiar steps of No. 273.

“Well?” says the driver.

“A few interesting characters,” he says.

“You gonna put me in one of your stories?” says the driver.

“You never know,” he says.

He slides into the first available seat and pulls out his notebook. He gives her a name. Penny. It feels slightly ironic. Perfectly ironic.

He stares at the page during the ride home, but nothing appears. He stares at it again at his desk until he’s too tired to think. The next morning at breakfast, the page with a single word on it stares at him.

“Penny,” he reads aloud. Still nothing.

And then, he knows. There is no story.

There is only Penny.

The next day he will be Tom.

Just in case.

Dinner (excerpt from a w.i.p.)

I could think of no better way to cap the end of a good chapter of our lives than by taking Kelly to Brother Sebastian’s. The landmark steakhouse and winery was always high on our “if we only could afford it” wish list (a long list, considering my pastor’s salary and Kelly’s part time income from her job at the furniture store).

There are plenty of restaurants in Omaha, but Brother Sebastian’s is the only place that comes to mind when you tell your spouse you’re taking her out for a one-of-a-kind dinner. So I didn’t tell her. I just said, “the sitter’s here, we need to get going.”

She gave me that sly smile she always saves for the moments when I need it most – the moments that follow an accumulation of arrhythmic marital connections, the moments that threaten to reveal the dark oases of vulnerability in our Sahara-huge determination to love one another no matter what.

“Where are we going? Am I dressed up enough?”

Her smile kills me. In a good way. Kelly could be old and wrinkly and bedridden, but as long as she still has that smile I will always be just one smile away from loving her the way I was destined to love her.

I didn’t answer.

“Brother Sebastian’s!” she said, before I’d even started the car.

I smiled, of course. Because how could I not? She reached into her purse – a small purse because she’s never been the sort of woman who liked to carry the entire contents of the bathroom counter with her – and pulled out a tube of lipstick. Kelly rarely wears much makeup. She doesn’t have to. She has beautiful olive skin and brilliant blue eyes that enchant the curious and hypnotize the smitten.

“Did we win the lottery?” she asked, staring into the mirror on the back of the passenger-side visor.

“Yes. Did I forget to mention that?”

“Then I’m having the steak and lobster.”

“Whatever you want,” I said.

“Except for a glass of wine,” she sighed.

“Yeah, except for that.”

“Maybe just one?”

“Let’s recap. What did the doctor tell you?”

“That once in a while a glass of wine wasn’t so bad,” she said, flipping the visor up.

“And then what did you say in response to his weak moment prompted by your sad eyes and pouty lips?”

“‘I don’t think I’ll risk it.’”

“Change of heart?”

“No. I’m just whining.”

“Cute,” I said.


“Yes. And the pun about the whining.”

“Oh. Yeah. That was intentional of course.”

She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. I’m not the sort of driver who’s willing to take his eyes off the road, not even to kiss my wife. She’s always been a bit frustrated with this because she likes to look me in the eyes when we talk. But I didn’t feel any frustration. Instead I felt a spark in that gentle touch of her lips. I continue to be amazed by the ever-changing nature of a woman’s emotions. A week ago she didn’t want me to touch her.

“That was an appetizer,” she said, reading my thoughts. I hoped she couldn’t read all of them.

We pulled into the parking lot and it was, not surprisingly, packed. I was praying silently for grace from a familiar refrain but God chose not to answer my prayer.

“Did you make a reservation?” she asked, as we climbed out of the car. “Surely you made a reservation. Did you?”

“Yes. I did.”

She sighed and a puff of condensation drifted from her mouth and disappeared into the cold evening air.

“Thank you,” she said.

“For making a reservation?”

“That, too.”

I had asked for a table in the room known as “The Brother’s Study.” After a moderate wait, we were escorted to the secluded room, and it was bit like time traveling. The restaurant looks and feels a lot like the monastery it wants people to believe it is. The wood-paneled walls are dark and aged, the hanging ironwork and amber glass lanterns, appropriately dim. Wine casks form the entire wall of one dining area. I’d read about The Brother’s Study years ago but wasn’t prepared for the intimacy of it. A tall bookshelf packed full of books lined one wall. We were ushered into a cozy booth along that wall. I scanned the books, expecting them to be little more than decoration. There were plenty of books with titles I’d never heard of. But there were also a few I recognized – McDonald, Lewis, and…Hemingway. I considered the lives of the fictional monks who walked the dark hallways and wondered if they would have had to hide their copies of The Sun Also Rises.

“I love this place,” said Kelly. “I absolutely love it.”

She reached across the table and rested her hand on mine, her eyes sparkling more than usual in the light of the flickering oil lamp. Her fingers are long, soft – the fingers of a woman who understands the sway of subtle gestures and delicate touch.

“And it smells amazing,” she added.

It did. Food smells dominated the room, redolent aromas of char-grilled steaks and freshly-baked rolls, but they were not so overpowering that I didn’t notice the scent of old wood and wine. There was a weight to the air – a thickness that you could almost taste. If the taste were a color it would have been burgundy.

“Does it seem odd to you that this whole monastery theme is so romantic? I mean, monks aren’t known for their love lives,” said Kelly.

“Ah, but that’s exactly what they’re known for. Except their love lives are a little different than yours and mine.”

“Yeah, I know. They’re in love with God.”


“I get that. In theory, anyway. But look around. The low lights, the dark corners, this place is all about secrets. It’s all about mystery.”

God is mysterious,” I said.

“Yeah. No kidding.”

Kelly wanted to say more. I saw the words lining up behind her eyes. She picked up her water glass, studied it, traced the rim with her index finger, then took a long, slow sip.

“Do you think this is at all like a real monastery?” She finally said, returning from her reverie.

I thought back a few years to my seminary days. There wasn’t much in those memory banks to answer Kelly’s question. Protestants who run in mostly evangelical circles – even the reasonably educated ones – tend to pinch or turn up their noses around anything that gives off that distinctive Catholic smell…and monasteries reek with it. It’s a shame and something I don’t agree with, but I learned early on that ecumenism is welcomed with open arms in theory and crossed arms in practice inside the walls of most evangelical churches. One quote from Thomas Merton was enough to trigger a caution from the board at my previous church. Previous. I’d nearly forgotten we were just days away from moving.

“I’m guessing there are fewer tables and not so many waiters,” I finally said.

“And probably not a lot of this,” she said. I felt her naked foot sliding up the inside of my leg.

“Um…right. Probably very little of that.”

Her foot continued up my leg. I looked at the table across from us, certain everyone in the room could see my eyes grow wide. An older man in a gray suit was sipping a glass of wine while his guest – a woman young enough to be his daughter but clearly not his daughter because of the way she was looking at him – lifted a forkful of butter-dripping lobster to her red-lipsticked lips. Kelly’s foot pressed gently against a part of me that wasn’t supposed to be acknowledged in public places.

“So, what are you getting?” Kelly asked, studying the menu with practiced nonchalance while continuing to massage me with her foot.

“I think that’s becoming rather obvious, don’t you?”

“The steak, then?”

I laughed, but it came out like a snort. The silver-haired man turned his head toward me, glanced under our table, smiled and gave me a head nod that was like a secret handshake offered exclusively to members of the “gettin’ lucky tonight” club. I reached down and guided my wife’s foot back to the floor.

“People are watching,” I whispered.

She shrugged her shoulders and offered an exaggerated sigh. “And you have a problem with that?” I felt her foot again, softly brushing against my calves.

“Okay…who are you and what have you done with my wife?”

I knew I shouldn’t have said it the second after the words escaped. But if I’d hurt her, Kelly didn’t let it show. She just widened her smile, tilted her head toward the woman at the neighboring table, who was licking butter off her fingers, and said, “I’m having the lobster.”

All In (A Love Story in 344 Words)

He won the girl of his dreams on poker night.

She wasn’t dropped onto the table as part of the ante – a wry or rude joke offered by one of the frat boys to make up for a sudden lack of cash.

No, she was standing on the next table over, surrounded by similarly well-dressed girlfriends. And she was dancing to “Pour Some Sugar on Me” like she meant it.

He looked up from his cards and saw her hiding secrets both dark and bright in ironic dancing and un-ironic singing and a blouse with three buttons undone instead of a much more appropriate two.

He saw her and he knew. There was something in the air. Something piquant and perfect that sliced through the smell of beer and cigarettes to tease a smile from his lips despite the odds stacked against him.

“All in,” he said. He would have lost if the frat boys had known the subtle differences in his smiles. This one, born of curious magic, would reveal him a fool who would rather trust whim than logic. But they misread it as confidence and folded.

She looked at him as he scooped up his meager winnings, heard the swearing from the flustered frat boys and caught that rare smile. Even through a three-martini haze, she knew exactly what it meant. It was a thank-you and an invitation.

The song ended and she fell back into the arms of her laughing friends. She wiped the beading sweat from her brow, buttoned up her blouse, then stumbled elegantly to the bar.

He went all-in on the next round and lost everything. He excused himself from the table and walked up next to her at the bar.

The frat boys catcalled. The girlfriends whispered their jealousy.

He asked what she was drinking. She told him, “Kelly, what’s yours?” The music was really loud.

He smiled and asked again. She laughed, then said, “And what are you drinking?”


The music stopped. They scooted closer anyway.

He ordered a diet Coke. She ordered coffee.

In Reflection

In the mirror across the bar she is twelve. She is standing in the wings of the Big Top, breathing the scent of hay and earth and animal with deep, happy inhales. She hears the crowd’s cheer rise and fall in waves, pictures a man and a woman flying through the air in matching blue and white costumes. She looks at her own costume. It is pink. Color, Maya, color! The circus is all about color! It is the voice of her father, a voice she has never known but somehow recognizes. I want to match you and mom, she says. But you match Kimba!

“Another?” She is back in the bar, her elbows leaning on the mahogany counter, her fingers wrapped around a sweating glass. The man she has been dating for three months touches her hand. He is a handsome man and she wonders if that’s why it was so easy to say “yes” to his dinner invitation all those weeks ago.

Maya looks down at her empty glass. She doesn’t remember the last sip.

“Okay,” she says. He lifts his hand from hers, and her whole body aches in the absence of his touch.

In the mirror across the bar, Kimba lifts her gray trunk, tickling at the edge of the curtain, playing with a fraying cotton rope that hangs from the exposed metal frame above. Kimba is wearing a pink ruffle around her neck. Kimba doesn’t like the ruffle. She endures it. Maya thinks this is how she feels about her pink outfit, too.

The applause becomes a symphony. Spotlights flash by the entryway. Her father sprints past, blowing a kiss to Maya. Her mother slows, reaches up and wraps her fingers around her daughter’s pink-slippered foot. Stand tall, her mother says, then follows her father back into the darker rooms where circus acts are stitched together with sawdust and magic.

“You seem quiet tonight,” he says as her drink is refilled. He notices things. She wonders if this is why it was so easy to say “yes” to spending the night after that first dinner. She had never done that before. Not so soon.

“I’m fine,” she says. He knows this means she needs the quiet; that she’s daydreaming or remembering or sorting. He will touch her again to acknowledge this. And he does, his hand on her shoulder.

In the mirror across the bar, Maya is atop Kimba, carefully adjusting her stance to stand tall as the elephant marches behind a parade of clowns into the biggest ring of the three-ring circus. Fireflies spark from the crowd when the youngest star makes her entrance. The flashes don’t really help, she hears her father say later, on the drive home in a rusty brown station wagon. The cameras are too far away for the flashes to matter. Maya leans against the car door, watching the blurring trees. They matter to me, she whispers to the clouds.

“Do you want to get out of here?” He asks. She feels the weight of his hand on her shoulder. He wants to go.

“No. I want to stay.” When she says it, there is too much bite in her words. She knows this and wants to apologize, but instead she lifts her glass and sips, disappointed by her distraction, then surprised by the taste of pomegranate.

In the mirror across the bar, she is twelve years old and standing on the back of an elephant. Head forward, she hears in echo. Head forward and smile big. The smiling is easy; she feels like she is flying. But she wants to turn and catch her father’s eye. She imagines him standing in the shadows, holding her steady with raised eyebrows and white knuckles, confident in his teaching, hopeful in her learning.

“Where are you?” he asks. His voice is soft, almost too soft to hear above the music that’s playing in the bar. She knows this song.

You don't even have to speak,
if you keep looking at me.

She catches her breath and turns to look at him.

“Kiss me,” she says and he does. The kiss tastes of salt and lime and ends too soon. It is a perfect kiss. He pulls back and looks into her eyes, not pleading, not probing. Lingering.

In her peripheral vision she sees the girl of twelve in the mirror. The girl turns her head to see her father and loses her balance. She begins to fall.

“Whoa,” he says, catching her as she slides off the stool. “You okay?”

His hands are strong.

“A little dizzy,” she says. He doesn’t let go until a measured moment later.

“I’ll get your coat.”

“Wait,” she says. “Don’t go.” He sits back down. She turns to the mirror behind the bar. The little girl is gone. In her place, a middle-aged woman who looks vaguely familiar, apart from the tired lines on her face and the bags under her eyes.

“I look like a wreck,” she says.

“You look like a princess,” he says. “Is it okay if I say that?” Then he smiles, because he knows it’s one of the things about him she finds charming – the way he asks permission to pay her a compliment only after he’s already offered it.

“Yes, it’s okay,” she says. He’s a good man, she thinks. She reaches across the bar and rests her hand on his.

“I was at the circus,” she says.

“You were at the circus?”

“A moment ago when you asked, I was at the circus. I’ve never actually been. But I was twelve years old and wearing a pink ballerina costume and pink shoes and I was balancing on an elephant as it circled the arena. Everyone was cheering and there were hundreds of fireflies and…my parents were there. They were trapeze artists.” She is watching him watch her as she speaks. He is fully engaged, not queuing up a response, but listening for the things she doesn’t say.

He turns to look at her reflection in the mirror. She turns, too. He is handsome in reflection.

“Am I crazy?” she asks.

He lifts her hand and kisses it.

“Yes,” he says, and she hears “you’re beautiful.” She is about to cry when he speaks again. They are perfect words.

“Tell me more about the fireflies.”


My mom is a lot prettier than she thinks she is. Sometimes I think I’m the only one who knows this.

Last summer we went to the Grand Canyon. We couldn’t afford plane tickets because Dad’s company had to close for a whole week in February and he didn’t get paid. I thought, “that’s like five snow days in a row!” but I didn’t say it out loud because Dad was extra quiet when he told us.

It was a long drive from Wisconsin. I could tell you the states we drove through. Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona. I could also tell you how many times my older brother Tony complained about how stupid the trip was. 37. I’m not exaggerating. I kept track in my notebook.

Tony is two years older than me. He thinks 16 is too old for family trips. He’s probably right, but I guess you have to complain 37 times before your parents will agree with you. Based on what Dad said somewhere in Iowa (he doesn’t use those words very often except when the Packers are losing) I’m pretty sure Tony will get to stay home this summer. Probably with the neighbors – the ones with the kid who goes to Tony’s school, not the ones with the dog that’s always getting into our trash.

Unless we go to Disneyworld. Tony says that Disneyworld is just for kids, but I happen to know he’d want to go anyway (if Dad would let him). There’s no way he could turn down the chance to see that Indiana Jones stunt show again. Once, last week, I caught him wearing the hat and holding a belt like a whip and quoting lines from the movie and even though he threatened to beat me with the belt if I told anyone I didn’t care because he looked like my brother for a few minutes and that doesn’t happen very often anymore.

I know more stuff than I say out loud these days.

I used to say everything that came to mind. I kind of had to. There were too many words and I couldn’t keep them all inside. My brother hated it and usually just walked out of the room. Dad listened until he heard something I got wrong (which was often) and then corrected me because he didn’t want me to embarrass myself someday. He was usually very polite about it all and I learned a lot, too – like why your pee smells funny after you eat asparagus. Mom was the only one who liked listening to every word. Sometimes she rolled her eyes, but not on purpose.

On the day we drove through Arizona, Mom was complaining about the heat and I was sure an ice cream stop would fix that and I think she agreed but Dad said maybe and then Tony complained again how stupid the trip was (complaint number 23) and Dad yelled and said we weren’t stopping until we got to the hotel. We went to a restaurant that night and I thought it was really good (chicken strips and French fries!) but I guess it wasn’t because Dad sent his steak back twice and Mom never got her salad.

The next morning is when it happened for the first time.

We all got in the car and drove to the Grand Canyon. Everyone had slept in late so Mom didn’t have enough time to put on her makeup, but it probably wouldn’t have stuck anyway since she kept rubbing her eyes. I don’t think it was allergies. Tony threatened to throw me over the railing - if they even had one. We didn’t know. I was only a little scared about that. Dad drove like his back hurt or something.

When we got there, we all walked up to the viewing area and stood there. They did have a railing. Tony complained that it was just a big stupid hole in the ground, but then he shut up for a while. I said “wow,” and that was probably when I stopped saying everything out loud because there were a lot of other words I wanted to say but didn’t. Then I looked over at Mom and I couldn’t find any words at all. She looked tired and a little sad but her eyes were green and her mouth was almost smiling and the wind was blowing her hair a thousand ways at once. She was so beautiful it made my stomach hurt. I kept waiting for Dad to say something. He looked at her at least twice. But he didn’t say a thing. I figured he was stunned, like me.

I don’t think that anymore.

Today my baseball team won our first game. I only got one hit, but I made a diving catch that should be on ESPN. Mom and Dad were in the stands, cheering. Tony had other plans, but he did tell me “have a good game, kid” before we left. After the game, there was a moment that was kind of like in a movie. I had just come back from the team huddle and the sun was starting to go down and all the colors were showing off in the trees and everywhere. Mom’s hair is different now, shorter. And there might be more lines around her eyes than last summer. I don’t know. I don’t keep track of things like I used to. But with her short hair and the way the wind was blowing it and the way the sunset was painting everything gold she looked like an angel. She was even more beautiful than the time at the Grand Canyon.

I saw Dad look at her for a long moment and I was sure he was going to say something. I mean, how could he not? Even “wow” would have been enough. But instead he just picked up the cooler and walked away.

I wanted to tell Dad he was stupid not to say something. I wanted to tell Mom that he probably meant to but couldn’t find the right words. I wanted to say a lot of things, but I don’t say everything I think these days.

So even though I was sweaty and dirty and probably smelled bad, I hugged her. I’m the only one who still hugs her.

I think it was the right thing to do.

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