Our conversation about moving back to the country had the same cadence as all of our important conversations. First, Mike started by calmly stating his proposal. Each word was deliberate, practiced. “I just think that being away from the urban frenzy will make me less stressed. You’ll be able to focus on your writing, too.”
“Don’t make this about me,” I responded. “I really don’t think I’m the one who is struggling in Chicago.” This was the part where I baited him to tell the truth.
He hissed back. “Jenny, no one in this damn city is building anymore. I mean, you’ve seen how little I’ve been getting gigs. I could go back to school, maybe for programming or something, but that will cost money too. I’m just worried that before too long, we’ll be living entirely off credit cards.”
“I know, I know. But what about being so close to your family? Isn’t that going to be difficult?”
Mike hated the people from his small town, who had seemed to resent him when he moved away for college. When he left the farm on a muggy August morning, his mother lowered her eyes and said, “You didn’t have to choose to go so far away, you know.” After that, she and his father basically stopped calling and writing, except on holidays or birthdays. When Mike’s mom did write, she kept it brief and one-sided. Your father has emphysema, which is making it harder for him to work. Your sister and Bobby come over for dinner every Sunday – Jonathan is getting really big. Take care.
“Why would you even ask that?” Mike said, with growing frustration. “Yes, it will be difficult, especially since I failed to make it work in Chicago. But I wouldn’t even suggest it if I thought we had another option.”
I watched his eyes fill with tears, his pain both predictable and palpable. I’d never have admitted it to him but I always felt ashamed of him when he broke down. His face would grow soft, almost feminine, and his voice was tinged with giving up. But then I would kick myself, especially if he cried. I needed to remember that I was all he had.
“Don’t worry, handsome. It might take some adjustment, but I will go with you. It’ll be us against the world.”
Our drive upstate was light and filled with potential. Mike doodled on a note pad with his feet on the dash, and I followed the road, dangling a cigarette out the window. Whenever I smoked in the city, I felt fearful, as if the pollution, dirt and germs would accelerate the impact on my lungs. Now, I felt unencumbered, wisps of air just floating through me. When we pulled up to our new house, unassuming on the end of a dirt driveway, I told him that I felt optimistic. “Good,” he said with stolen confidence, “You have to believe in us, or it won’t work.”
We had sex that night for the first time in recent memory. Mike was rough, finding some sort of strength with each forceful move. I watched the moonlight retracting through the openings of the blinds, forming jagged squares on the ceiling like a prehistoric cityscape. He asked me if I loved him, and it felt good to say yes. I couldn’t guarantee that this would last.
After we spent the next few days unpacking, Mike wasn’t sure if he was ready to see his parents, but his sister called and said that their father’s condition was worsening, so we made the twenty-mile journey to the house where he grew up. I watched his face as we got closer, scanning him for signs of terror or nostalgia. But he remained stoic, gripping the steering wheel to maintain control.
We arrived just after dark, and Mike’s parents were waiting on the porch. I had never met them before, and I was anxious. Would they be just as cold as his mom’s letters? Would I have to protect Mike from their judgment? As we approached the front door, his dad shuffled forward and reached out his hand to shake Mike’s. “Son. Come on in. You’re just in time for dinner.” His mother nodded with some form of agreement. “Yes, yes, we don’t want the food to get cold.”
No one spoke much during the meal, so I focused intensely on how good the meal tasted. I complimented Mike’s mother on her cooking and she looked vaguely in my direction, lips parted as if beginning to smile.
I wasn’t used to such quiet. The forks clinging against the plates were piercing, and I wondered if this is how every night here was. I saw myself old, living out my last days on this farm. I wasn’t sure if I’d welcome the stillness or create some sort of chaos just to stay alive. Then Mike’s dad took a generous swig of whiskey and coughed. “So, son, there’s plenty to do once you’re ready to get started. Your mother can’t handle the work on her own.” He sounded stronger than he looked.
“I don’t know,” I interjected. It was enough for Mike to have to move back; working for his family would only add insult to injury. “This will be a bit of a drive to make everyday, don’t you think?”
Mike swilled the last of his beer and turned towards his father, as if he hadn’t even heard me. “Really, Dad? You’d want me to help out?” He had a look of exuberance, and I realized with disappointment and resentment that I hadn’t seen anything like it since we first started dating.
“Absolutely,” Mike’s father said firmly.
Mike’s mother smiled again, this time widely. “Well, then,” she said. “It’s settled. We’ve found our new farmhand.”
After dinner, Mike’s dad took him to the workshop to show him his gun collection, which had expanded significantly since Mike left for college. As they walked across the endless fields, I could hear their chatter break up the night’s shyness. In the kitchen, his mother and I silently cleared the table and washed the dishes, joined by a mutual desire to stay busy.
The drive home was stark and filled with misunderstanding. It was too cold to smoke out the window, so I fidgeted, tracing my fingertip against the coated glass. I pulled my legs up underneath me on the seat, trying to trap some warmth, and moved to lean against the door.
Mike didn’t notice my distance. He seemed giddy, and I worried that he had had too much to drink. He held the wheel loosely, letting it slip through his fingers. “Isn’t this great, Jenny? I can make money and get reacquainted with my family.”
I felt panicked. “Yeah, I guess. I’m feeling pretty left out of things.”
“You know, Jenny. Sometimes it’s not all about you.”
In the back of the car, the rifle Mike received as a coming-home gift lay in waiting, like a seatbelt for a passenger who never got in.
Soon, we settled into a routine. Mike woke every morning before dawn to head to the farm. He had brightness to his movement, like someone who whistles all the time. I would stay home all day, fueling with coffee, trying to work but finding myself looking out the window at the crumbling snow.
I knew I had lost something, but didn’t know how to get it back. I began to ache for the endless sights and sounds of the city. Here, houses were God’s elbow’s length apart, and the stillness of the land made my skin crawl. So I fixated on things that moved: ants crawling, clouds drifting, battered pick up trucks grating the rocks on the main road.
The barn cats were the best diversion I found. Nimble and unwilling to be caged in, they leaped across roofs, slipped under fences and scratched across roofs with a willfulness that I admired. I started to leave out bowls of tuna at the edge of the driveway, standing back on the porch to see them devour the food.
But, as the air grew warmer, the dishes of aromatic fish invited all creatures, and soon, a raccoon was a regular visitor. His bandit mask hid him at night and highlighted him by day, and he was assertive in grabbing the food. Sometimes, he’d even force his way right into a ring of cats, who quickly dispersed to the sidelines, grab a handful and hustle away.
His aggression unnerved me, which I told Mike one night as we sat on the porch looking forward into opaque black. “It just pisses me off that he saunters up like he owns the place. He is scaring away all of my cats.” Mike took a sip of his coffee tinged with whiskey. “Jenny, you’re making this so complicated. Why can’t you just stop feeding them?”
I took a deep drag of smoke and then another. “I don’t want to,” I said. “I’m tired of giving up what I want.”
The next morning, I waited for the sound of Mike’s tires to fade and poured myself a large cup of coffee. I sat down to work, hours passing by, turning day into dusk. The snow was long gone, but the world still looked gray—perpetually existing somewhere in between winter and spring.
Time to feed my cats, I thought suddenly. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten to put something out last night and all day. I grabbed the kibble from the garage and headed out to the back patio area to fill the dishes. Mike pulled up into the side driveway, and I heard him go inside and close the door. As the pebbles cascaded into the empty bowls, I saw a few cats appearing. Then more. I leaned back against the wall by the back door and lit a smoke. This is it, I thought. This is all I’ve got.
Then, the raccoon emerged from the darkness, moving aggressively towards the food. Usually, the cats stuck around, circling him, hoping he’d lose interest before the bowl was empty. This time, though, they scattered completely, hissing in fear, and he was alone. Smugly satisfied with his achievement, he began to dig into the bowl with gusto.
I went into the garage and returned to find him still eating, back turned in defiance. I had never shot a gun before, and I felt clumsy lifting it. When I fired, I saw his body splay sideways and then forward, his arms out to the side before they collapsed and followed his body’s descent to the ground. All of these moments were both separate and co-mingled, as if time were confused and couldn’t order events properly.
“What the hell, Jenny?” I heard. I craned my neck to get a better view of the second floor deck, and I saw Mike looming above. His face was streaked with shock, marked with the blunt realization that he had underestimated me.