I still paid attention to license plates—both hoping for and dreading Tennessee. I knew he’d be coming for me, still felt him in my bones, years after I’d left him. I’d been reading a magazine, waiting for a haircut, when I overheard his name—I suspect—spoken loud enough for my benefit. Across the salon, Jody Sutter had her head covered in highlighting foils. She was Jackson’s second cousin and she’d never liked me in high school, before Jackson and I had even met.
I was married again to a good man—one I didn’t deserve because when he kissed or touched me, I almost always pictured someone else. My first. My always. Those were part of our vows to each other, Jackson and me, in the hall at the Justice of the Peace. Jackson wore jeans and a flowery button-up western shirt. I wore a white cotton sundress and my red cowboy boots. I painted my lips red too, and he didn’t even care when I kissed him and got lipstick all over his face. I will be your undoing, and you will be mine. That was the part of the vows that stuck.
After the wedding, we met a few friends at The Willow to toast to our happiness. We drank beers and ate greasy fries. We put Darlin’ Companion on the jukebox and danced so close, I could have sworn we really had become one. We got drunk with our friends and woke up the next day, curled up in a blanket in Jackson’s truck. We went back to our house in the morning—I fried bacon and he made the coffee. Then we drove out to the lake and pretended like we were on a honeymoon, just for one day.
I thought marriage to Hank—a decent man with straight teeth who poured his beers into glasses and wore button down shirts—meant I’d finally be tamed. No more truck beds and shared sleeping bags, sneaking out windows and drinking as much as the boys did. But marriage hadn’t done it. I had a hole out back where I buried cigarette butts, and some days I put whiskey in my coffee just to get through the morning.
Hank and I had two babies now, Amos and Lila. And I was happy, mostly. I’d look at their tiny clothes hung on the line and feel my heart fill like a leaky rowboat.
I thought motherhood would calm my wild heart down, but it only pushed the wild things deeper. And now, with Jackson so close, everything came bubbling up again. I didn’t know how long I had. I tried to be the very best wife and mother as long as I could. At night, in the babies’ rooms, I’d linger, watching them sleep, long eyelashes on flushed cheeks.
I broke a plate in the kitchen when I was doing the dishes and knocked over my lemonade at dinner. I was shaky. Hank asked if something was wrong. I blamed it on Amos being up all night, which wasn’t a lie but not a whole truth. I couldn’t tell him. But how could I keep quiet, not warn him about the disaster about to stumble (literally) onto our doorstep? I loved Hank, but it was quiet love, and I wanted love that shouted. One that bowled me over. One that made me weak.
Hank had been nothing but good to me all this time. I did what I could in what I knew were our last days: I cooked his favorite meals and rubbed his shoulders and let him join me for morning showers.
“What’s gotten into you?” he asked one morning as we dried off. “Spring fever?”
He snapped his towel at my bare hip.
“Somethin’ like that,” I said, careful not to look him in the eye. And the only thing that made that easy was kissing him, hard. Hank always, always closed his eyes.
This is what else I remember about those early days with Jackson, the troublesome stuff:
He kissed me with his eyes open, like he was afraid that if he closed them, I’d disappear.
We’d been too young, too passionate. We lived wearing blinders: we only saw each other. After pay days, we had nothin’ left but a few dollars for a six pack and a pack of smokes, but that’s all we needed. We’d sit on the back porch, drinking and smoking, watching evening fall. And once it got dark, we’d go inside, make love, have a drink and another smoke, and then make love again.
I’d wanted babies then. A little cherub with his gray eyes and my pouty lips. He wanted to be able to get up and go whenever he pleased.
“The only responsibility I want is making you feel good,” he said, applying gentle pressure to my neck with his teeth. I shivered. He tried to fuck his way out of things and usually it worked.
“Maybe I want more than just good feelings,” I’d said, pulling away from him. I stormed out, slamming the front door dramatically and peeling out of the gravel driveway.
I’d done this before because I liked making up with him. But this time I stayed away three nights, and before that, we’d never even been apart for one. When I came back, he asked me where I’d been and I told him I didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t ask again. We tried to go back to life-before, but something had shifted. We were almost-but-not-quite. A soft film over something that used to be clear.
There were letters to Hank and the babies hidden in my underwear drawer, a full suitcase under the bed in the guest room. I watched the clock like it was a television show, ran like hell every time the phone rang. I listened for the rumble of truck tires up the driveway the way most people listen for raindrops in a drought. In the same way, I prayed for relief.
But sometimes relief doesn’t come in the way we expect.
Sometimes we watch people drive away, Tennessee plates fading into the distance, and we go back to the clothesline, wiping away tears with a cloth diaper. Sometimes we unpack a suitcase while the babies are napping, burn letters in the firepit in the back yard. Sometimes, we wake our babies early from their naps to pick wildflowers and play hide-and-seek. Sometimes we turn the music up loud in the kitchen while we make dinner, and when our sweet husband comes home from work, we plant a huge kiss on him (with tongue) and make him dance with us until he calls us crazy and we say, “Damn straight” and keep on dancing.
About the Author: Amanda Miska lives and writes in Northern Virginia. Her work has been featured in or is forthcoming from WhiskeyPaper, Buffalo Almanack, CHEAP POP, jmww, Cartagena, The Collapsar, Storychord, Five Quarterly, Cartridge Lit, Cactus Heart, Pea River Journal and Counterexample Poetics. She is the fiction curator at Luna Luna Magazine. You can find her being irreverent on Twitter @akmiska.
YOU GOT ME by LEESA CROSS-SMITH
Lowell called me woman. Woman, when's the last time you had your oil changed? Woman, have you seen my hat? I called him Low.
Low had a cowboy heart. I would've married him simply for how his body slicked over when he played pool. The clacking of those pool balls was the soundtrack to our relationship. And how he'd say rack 'em and somehow make it the dirtiest, sweetest thing I'd ever heard.
We knew each other, hung out before. This was different. This time we spent four slippery days together. Late-nights hushed into early mornings without either of us noticing. Woman, I'm fixin' to go to the gas station, he said, putting his hat on. It was Saturday afternoon. He never came back. I didn't call.
I didn't go to his favorite bar because I knew he'd be there—slicking over, shooting pool. Saying rack 'em to some girl who wasn't me.
I thought about calling him, but didn't. I went to work and came home. I had dinner with a man I didn't like. A man who said terribly generic things like I love music. And I had to stop myself from dying right there at the table–from rolling my eyes back as far as they would go, from letting my body slam down as hard as it could and crash-clinking the silverware to the floor.
I drove past Low's house, saw his truck out front. I didn't slow down. My body ached, I prayed for rain—a purple-blue tempest, lightning slicing sky.
I went to The Willow because I knew he'd be there. I got a beer and leaned against the doorway. Watched him. I listened for a screeching feedback sound when he locked eyes with me, like we shouldn't be that close to each other anymore and even the walls of that bar knew it. The Hooker's Green fuzzy felt of that pool table knew it. I mouthed fuck you slowly, sipped his favorite beer. His face flashed, he raised his eyebrows and put his pool stick down. Told his friends he'd be just a sec.
“Woman, did you just cuss me?” he asked, leaning.
“You walked out on me before anything got good and started.”
“You're mad I left first? You didn't call me,” he said, shrugging slow. His friends kept shooting pool. I tilted to watch them and didn't feel anything.
“You didn't want to be called,” I said.
“Well you got me now, woman.”
Low took my beer and finished it. I listened for the hooves of his cowboy heart galloping towards me and I heard them. Or maybe it was a dump truck rumbling by, a train or the thickening thunder of that storm I was praying for.
What I'm saying: I beat him in a game of pool and let him take me home. What I'm saying: I let him take everything.
Collaboration Song: "Wild Heart" by Stevie Nicks