By Shuly Cawood
In the early mornings of the spring that I turned twenty-nine, I drove on a stretch of Ohio’s Route 68 to work. I liked it best when the road showed up for me alone, when I could steer in a kind of solitary silence from village into county, from Epic Books and Ha Ha Pizza to the stoplight on Cemetery Road, then past pastures and swaths of farmland and the occasional framed house onto which the sunlight warmed the lives of families rising into day. I had known the road so long—not just the yawn of corn and soybean fields, but also Young’s Jersey Dairy with its red barn and white fence; Ebenezer Cemetery with its crumbling cement wall; the turnoffs for Sparrow, Collier, and Cottingham roads; even Walt’s, the junkyard where the highway doglegged—yet that spring I studied each moment of the way as if remembering it well meant that I could somehow keep it.
Back then, I wanted to believe in beginnings, but I can see now that I held onto the ends.
Corazón: the Spanish word for heart. The admissions receptionist, Joann, had scrawled the international student’s name—Miguel Corazón—next to mine on the interview sheet for later that May morning.
“With me?” I asked Joann.
“He said he was from Torreón, Mexico,” she said. “He asked for you.”
“Because I know Spanish?” (I’m half-Mexican. My relatives live in Torreón.) “Does he know my family?” Another Wittenberg University admissions officer typically handled foreign applicants.
“Well,” I said, “then I’d better get ready.” I plucked brochures and an international application from the shelves and settled in at my desk, right off the lobby.
I had worked in this very office from my freshman year until graduation then returned years later to my alma mater for full-time work. But in three months, I would be giving up this job, my home state, the places where I belonged, to move to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My fiancé, Bill, refused to stay in Ohio, where he had come only to earn his master’s degree, and I had acquiesced to leaving, even though my chest tightened when I thought about it. When I was twenty-nine, I believed that surrendering what I wanted for the sake of someone else was the cost of love, and that I should bear it.
Through my office wall, I could hear Joann’s muffled voice mingled with a deep one. Apparently, Miguel Corazón had shown up early. I was sitting at my desk, talking on the phone, my back to my door when I heard it open, and Joann say, “You can sit down, she’ll just be a minute.” Always, I met prospective students out in the lobby, but I hurried off my call and only after hanging up did I then swing my chair around and rise to meet—
I froze. The words I’d begun to say hung mid-air.
From his chair, Michael rose, too, like an apparition ascending from memory.
* * *
For the appointment, as a ruse, and to back up his false claim of hailing from Mexico, Michael had used the Spanish version of his first name, and Corazón in place of his last.
Five years earlier, Michael and I had fallen in love. After only a few months, I wanted to marry him, move across the country for him, never be apart. I spent much of the first part of our relationship longing for not just a ring, but to come before the stack of priorities standing between me and first place: his research, post-graduate school goals, his solo life plan that only vaguely—perhaps later—included me. Eventually, I had fled to Mexico to teach, and when this propelled him to propose, I turned away entirely, no longer sure of who I was or what I wanted. It was easier for me, by then a mere twenty-five years old, to move on alone than to figure all that out with him.
In the years that followed, when I was twenty-six and twenty-seven and back in Ohio, Michael had shown up. One time he drove eight hours from DC through a snowstorm to see me; another time, when I was lonely and depressed, he drove two hours from his hometown in Indiana, where he was staying for the summer, to take me salsa dancing. He wrote me letters, even when we had just talked or seen each other. Over the years, he’d given me a book of Neruda love poems, a picture frame with blue flowers pressed beneath glass, a bird feeder. His biggest gift, though, was a sacrifice: Michael put off a semester of his Ph.D. program in Nebraska to live closer to me. He had gone to great lengths to show me that I came first, but I had told myself, repeatedly and with admonition, only foolish girls believe a man will change.
Until he showed up in my office on that warm and clear May day.
* * *
Michael stood before me and grinned, clearly proud of having flown in from Nebraska and surprised me. We had been in contact, but eighteen months had passed from the time that we’d last seen each other to the moment Joann led him to me. My hands trembled because I was happy to see him—and aware I shouldn’t be. He knew about my engagement. This fact stood between us, arms folded across its chest, and shook its head.
The best that I could blurt out was, “What are you doing here?”
He laughed. “I wanted to see you.”
A few moments later, I said, “If you’re here to change my mind, I won’t.”
He didn’t hesitate or blanch. His impeccable posture alerted you that this man held few, if any, doubts about anything he set his mind to. He looked me straight in the eye. “I only want to see what’s possible,” he said. Then he asked me to lunch.
We walked across campus in the brightness of the late morning light to the student center cafe and found a table by a wall of windows. We laughed and lingered as if we were undergraduates and had all the time in the world for big choices and hard lines, as if none of those things mattered now. Later, we rambled around Wittenberg, eventually settling on a bench overlooking Myers Hollow, near the slope I had slipped down after an ice storm my freshman year before smacking into a tree.
For a minute, we stared out onto the hollow.
Ever fearless, he broke the silence. “Marry me,” he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the same ring he had, four years earlier, offered me. Except now, instead of a diamond in the setting, a green stone the size and color of a pea perched on top.
As he looked at me, I studied him: his blue eyes I remembered squinting at me in the dim morning light before he would reach for his glasses; his freckles that faded, forgotten in winter, but that would sprinkle across his nose and cheeks when flushed out by summer sun; his bushy brown hair, unruly after sleep, that could be tamed with water and a comb.
Finally, I said, “I can’t.”
“I don’t believe you,” he whispered, almost to himself.
“I won’t,” I said. The words tasted metallic.
We sat in silence and let the sun break against us on our bench and let the gap—between now and his flight back to Nebraska, between now and my future husband and married life in North Carolina—get a little narrower.
Then we ambled, taking the long way back along the hollow’s edge toward the place he had parked. We descended via a tree-lined path veiling us in shadow and emerged into the glare of sun and asphalt. When we embraced goodbye, I held onto him longer than he held onto me, and when I stepped away from him and toward Recitation Hall, toward my office and the life I knew, I had to force myself to do so, to train my eye on the glass door, push the metal bar that spanned it, and go through and not look back.
He left me the little gold ring with its pea stone, and it burrowed into my pocket, planting itself deep: a seed of doubt that would grow and grow.
Three and half years later, in late and cold November, my marriage disintegrated into the fifty percent statistic I had sworn that I’d never belong in. It would be a lie to say that I’d been in love with my ex-boyfriend during my marriage because I had not, but his big love, big gestures had become the ruler against which I—however unfairly—had measured every disagreement with Bill, every incident in which I felt not loved enough. I mourned not just my impending divorce but what might have been, had I only chosen differently.
A few months earlier, Michael had moved from Nebraska to North Carolina, but I had found this out only weeks before the divorce decision. I’d discovered through a mutual acquaintance that he lived a mere twenty-five minutes away.
In late November, I wanted to go right to him, but the grief of my marriage ending clouded and rumbled in my chest. I knew, too, that grief passes, that it is only weather in the vast sky of the heart.
In early January, I asked Michael to come over. He showed up with a loaf of bread that he’d kneaded and baked for me, with all the ingredients he still remembered I loved: whole grains, seeds and nuts, and plump, black raisins. Just as he had years earlier, he took me to a salsa club that night, and I clung to his hand as he twirled me, as if we could wind back to where we had stopped and start again. Just as before, he gave me gifts as the weeks passed: a white cotton top with three-quarter sleeves and a buttonhole neckline; the fragrance of gardenias, a bouquet on my front stoop; a white colander; a brown umbrella with faces of dalmatians and cocker spaniels splashed across the fabric. But unlike before, he had become born again, and now he threaded Bible verses into emails and letters and tried to stitch me back together with Jesus’s words.
Although my spirituality was private and quiet and rested in a God who favored heart over creed, I didn’t say no when Michael asked to pray out loud with me; I didn’t say stop when he offered biblical passages as balms.
Without the physical intimacies and commitment of real couples—because of his religion and because I was still emotionally reeling from the divorce—we became, still, devoted to each other. I drove him to Lasik surgery and nervously thumbed through magazines in the waiting room. I helped haul his truckload of furniture into his new house, and together we painted a clean coat on each wall. It was he who steered the car through hordes of I-95 traffic to whisk me to DC for a weekend and to point out landmarks and pick restaurants. It was he who rubbed my back the day I officially divorced, when I wept face down on the bed, boring into a pillow. And it was he who sat beside me as the mortgage broker shuffled refinance papers across the desk for me to sign, the pages stacked like a book that I could not bear to read alone.
God, I loved him. He resurrected me.
But our differences sank into my belly. At night I felt them, cold and hard and unmoving. I thought the world was too big for only one religion, so we argued about how many paths led to God and about interpreting the Bible literally. I also conjured up hypothetical questions to test how he would prioritize his beliefs in relation to me; I know now that I was really testing his love. I asked inane questions like, “If you and I were married, and you believed God wanted you to go live in Africa, even if it meant leaving me behind, would you go?”
In the end, Michael always said he would have no choice but to do whatever he thought God or Jesus wanted him to do, but that God would not ask him to do something that would harm our relationship.
You’re stirring up trouble, I chided myself, and for a while I stopped peppering him with questions I didn’t want to know his answers to.
Then one night over the phone, I prodded more about his beliefs, poking a fire I knew that I could not contain if the flames leapt. I thought about all of my gay and lesbian friends, and I jabbed the topic open. He told me that homosexuality was a sin, and I asked him how he could make such a judgment. He said that he was not making that judgment: God was.
Suddenly, I wanted to dampen all of it, and I flooded him with questions until I found a concocted safe and middle ground: yes, he loved all people, straight or gay, and though he did not think gay couples should be able to get married or adopt, yes, he thought all people were equals.
Though I cried when we hung up the phone and lost my appetite for a day and a half, I clung to the word “equals.” I reminded myself he had always been nothing short of welcoming and warm to all of my friends, and I convinced myself that the place where he stood and where I stood were not so far apart, that if we both leaned toward each other, we could still touch.
It was spring by then, the season of possibility.
This was not the first time our views had clashed, that we’d tried to convince each other of our rightness, of the other’s implied wrongness.
Over the years, Michael and I had argued about little things—the safety of microwaves, whether eating organic fruits and vegetables was really better for you—and big things: whether we should get married, whether we should break up, and (after we had finally ended our relationship, back when I was twenty-five) whether we should get back together. This last disagreement endured more years than it should have. Sometimes we had talked about it; other times, I had avoided the talking, and in doing so, I must have hurt him more by what I did not say.
If you have ever not felt loved for exactly who you are—by someone who professes to—then that love is the one thing you will seek. After my divorce, I craved it as if my life depended on it. But he must have, too—not after my divorce, but in all the times he had shown up in my life and asked me to try again, long before I married or had even met my ex-husband, in all the times we had both been so young, so free to choose each other.
One time he had called to check on me and rescue me from loneliness when I was twenty-seven and living in Oxford, Ohio. He was spending the summer just two hours away in his hometown in Indiana, and he felt like a lifeline.
“Come on, Shuly. We’re going dancing,” he’d said when I picked up the phone. A statement, an urging, not a question—so rarely a question from him—something I both loved and resented.
I had given in. It was so easy to give in then. I changed from shorts and t-shirt to blouse and skirt, and when he arrived at my door, I followed him out of my apartment, down the narrow hallway and stairs and out to the parking lot. I got into his car. He could have driven me anywhere that night; I would have gone.
I let the air blow onto my face through the half-down window as he drove, as he stole me from Oxford. How I wanted to be stolen. He steered and gunned the engine toward highway and Cincinnati and city lights, away from small town, small apartment, what felt like such a small life. I do not remember where exactly we went salsa dancing, but if I close my eyes, I can feel the weight of his hand in mine on the dance floor, and his touch on my back as he led me in turns. I can taste the sweetness of the vanilla frozen yogurt he bought me afterward, something he had done dozens of times when we had been dating and had strolled along the gritty sidewalks on Ohio’s summer nights.
I remember that I laughed and laughed next to him in the car, and for those hours I forgot everything that hurt in my life. The sadness lifted and floated from my body like a bad and broken spirit only he could command away.
For that evening, I leaned into him. I had always been able to because he exuded confidence—his wiry frame buzzed with energy and a can-do attitude. An extrovert, with a near-constant smile on his face, he uplifted me. The summer we had fallen in love, and then that summer when I lived in Oxford, he shone: like a sun, like a full moon, like a star that could lead me home.
He drove me back to Oxford on highways then two-lanes and pulled off South College Avenue and idled in my parking lot as I got out. I walked to my building’s entrance, toward the glass door which led to a dark stairwell and to my apartment where loneliness clung like webs to the corners.
Before I went in, I looked back.
I did not want to go inside, and I did not want him to drive away, but I did not stop him when he did. I waved goodbye.
In all those years before my marriage, I had let him go each time. I had said no until it hurt, until he hurt, until I could not say it anymore. I had said no until the word became its own kind of religion that I did not question anymore.
And now, after my marriage and its implosion, I wanted to believe in yes so badly, I prayed for it.
In late summer—that time of year in North Carolina when the heat feels more like rage, when stems and leaves go limp in reply—Michael wrote me a letter, as he sometimes did.
I had always loved his script because I knew it so well: small loops in perfectly straight lines across the page, as if he were sewing sentences on white fabric. I could nearly feel their softness if I ran my hand across the words.
He started the letter by calling me precious. On page three, he told me my heart was beautiful, and then that Jesus wanted all of it. “Choosing Him is the most important prayer I have for you,” he wrote. “Please commit your heart to Him fully.”
He wrote that he knew it would not be easy. “Turning from your past, and breaking from the pressure of family and culture can be difficult.” What he meant was that I needed to steer away from how my parents—the most generous-hearted people I knew—had raised me religiously, a blend of world faiths.
On the hardest days, their beliefs, now mine, buoyed me: that everything happens for a reason I might not understand yet; that life is a series of lessons I can get right or repeat; and that kindness and respect matter more than doctrine.
He was asking me, in essence, to take it all back: relinquish what I had known, abandon what had come before.
But what I wanted to take back was not my faith, or my God, or my version of the Truth. I wanted to take back that night in Oxford—not the whole of it, just the moment when I had pulled at the door handle, stepped outside his car, and moved away from him and toward the building’s entrance. If I could have taken it back, I would have let the car idle with me still in it, let the exhaust drift from the tailpipe like grey plumes into the darkness, let the humidity crawl in through the window and around us. I would have said to him, “Don’t go.”
But Oxford lay 534 miles northwest of Chapel Hill. In another state. Six years too late.
And in the end, if I had taken it back, what then? Would that have severed the storms from our story? We might have never saved ourselves from the rest of it.
Maybe in Oxford, I had let him drive away because I’d had the kind of faith in myself that I thought only other people had in other things. The kind of faith that pushed you past your failures, made you rise up from the pain; the kind of faith that waned and nearly broke in two, but if you kept it, it kept you.
We have not spoken in a decade, but I remember him. Now, I use the dog umbrella, but only during light, un-slanted rains, as it’s small. I wear the top with the buttonhole neckline, but only when the seasons shift, as it’s made for neither hot nor freezing weather.
I still have the ring, although I don’t wear it or keep it in my jewelry box. Instead, the ring with the round stone drifts like a vagrant around the bottom of a purse. I move it from handbag to handbag but without any reason I can find logic in now.
Sometimes many months pass before I happen upon the ring again, and when I do, I am surprised by the little gold band, and how shiny it is, and the smooth stone that looks like a green eye staring up at me from the pit of the purse, and how fine and slight the ring is for how large a promise it once held, how big its memory.
SHULY CAWOOD is a writer and editor who is currently in the MFA creative writing program at Queens University. Her creative writing has appeared in publications such as Red Earth Review, Naugatuck River Review, Camel Saloon, Rathalla Review, and Under the Sun. Shuly has work forthcoming in Ray’s Road Review, Fiction Southeast, and Two Cities Review. Her website is www.shulycawood.com.
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