She’ll Be Back
by Marla Cantrell
She was wearing a blue velvet dress, cut low at the neckline, a slit running up the side of the skirt. Her hair, just barely brown, was in loose curls past her shoulders. What I remember most is that she smelled like carnations and cinnamon gum, and when I slipped the corsage of roses and daisies over her small hand, it wouldn’t stay put. She tied it in place, using her teeth to pull the silver ribbons taut against her pale skin.
But it was after the dance, after we’d gotten in trouble for dancing too close — “Couldn’t get a piece of notebook paper between you two,” Coach Devo had said — that I got to know her. As I drove her home, she pointed down a dark road I wasn’t familiar with. “Long cut,” she said, her blue eyes shining, and then she slid closer to me, making me go crazy when her thigh touched mine.
There is something about velvet, the way it feels when you touch it. There is something about a dress that comes to a girl’s ankles, but then has that one slit that reaches high above a girl’s knee. It was too much for me, and in that car, on that night, on that back road that led to the river bottoms and then straight out of Arkansas, I fell in love.
When I look back, I see how our relationship could not have survived. The way we were when we were together made the planet spin too fast, and when I stood next to her, my heart beat irregularly. What I know now is that she was broken in a way I didn’t quite understand. She had a father who hit her, I knew that, and a mother who seemed eternally angry. Once, standing on her porch, the clock about to strike midnight, I heard noises coming from inside. Glass shattered, a door slammed, and then the cussing started, her mother’s voice recognizable even from a distance. Her face went white when she heard the ruckus. “Mama’s at it again,” she said. And then, “Go.” She turned her face when I tried to kiss her.
All I wanted was to marry her, to make her mine, but I was younger than her by a year and a half, and the guys kept coming around when I was not with her. After we’d been together a year, she started to consider what her life would be like without me. In another three months, we were finished.
I can’t describe the pain of seeing her go, except to say that even now, all these years later, I have never felt another thing like it. She was stone-faced when she told me it was over. I thought at first she was kidding, but then I looked into her eyes. They were vacant, or maybe worse than vacant. They seemed like eyes that had found the bottom of sorrow, and then had dug a little deeper.
“Don’t,” I said, my voice weak and unconvincing, even to me. She shook her head, no, and she tugged at the silver zodiac sign she wore as a pendant, pulling it across the chain there at the base of her fine throat. Her hands were steady; that’s what I remember most, while mine trembled so much I shoved them in my pockets.
I sat outside Windsor Park Baptist Church on her wedding day and revved my engine just as “Wedding March” started. I played David Gray’s “The One I Love” as loud as I could until her older brother came outside, lit a cigarette, shook his head, and mouthed the word “loser” to me.
A year later, she called me up. “I need to see your face,” she said, and we arranged to meet on the railroad tracks near her house at midnight. She had lost weight, and her low-slung jeans looked as if they could fall at any minute. She wore a red silk blouse and her hair was up in a ponytail. I stood on the tracks and watched her come to me.
We didn’t say a word that night. We stood a foot apart and appraised each other. She had her hands in her back pockets; I had my arms crossed. Finally, I reached out and pulled her close enough to kiss her. You can’t take another man’s wife. That’s what I felt, even as I fought desire. I’d been brought up in the church; I understood the sins that guaranteed hellfire and brimstone, and I was still young enough to believe it. Just then, a train whistle howled in the distance, a kind of warning, I’d thought at the time. I took a step back and let her go.
So what do you do when you love somebody the way I loved her? You marry someone else. And I did. I had a good wife, and then I had two good kids, and for a few years, I was happy. If I thought about her, I didn’t dwell on it. If she called my house, I never knew. On my wedding day, though, I’d thought of her. I’d wanted her outside my church. I’d wanted her to sit in her car and regret every move she’d made that took her away from me.
I might have stayed married forever, but my wife grew tired of me. I wasn’t a bad husband, but I worked a lot, and when I wasn’t working, I hunted whatever was in season. We went to counseling and took tests that indicated I was not “all in” the marriage, and that I had “trouble truly seeing my wife.” While the counselor, who was draped in a pyramid of tie-dyed scarves, said this, I watched my wife. She crossed her right leg over her left knee and swung her foot up and down, and she nodded so hard it looked like her head could snap off. An angry wife, that’s what I saw. Who knows what else I was missing.
In my new place, a rickety warehouse with a concrete floor stained by motor oil, my life started feeling like my own again. The kids were teenagers, and they spent about half their time with me. I had a string of women bringing by casseroles, leaving their phone numbers, asking for help lighting their gas fireplaces. On Halloween, the air turned cold and the wind whistled. I walked outside and leaves skipped across the street. I’d planned to watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre, drink a few beers, maybe call the woman who’d dropped off a sack filled with candy corn and popcorn balls.
When she called, I knew her voice instantly. “There’s a hole in my heart,” she said, and for a minute, I thought she was sick, but she just laughed at me. Twenty minutes later, she was at my door. Her hair was longer than I’d ever seen it, and she had a few lines at the corner of her eyes when she smiled. She was dressed in black: jeans, leather jacket, boots. She wanted to ride.
How she knew I had a motorcycle, I don’t know. I’d only gotten the Ducati Monster three weeks before — the first bike I’d had since I was in my twenties. It moved like a sports bike, and I’d been taking it on the back roads, driving faster than I had in years, almost laying it down several times.
When she climbed on behind me, she said, “I like the old-school mirrors,” and I laughed.
“That’s what you like?” I teased, and she slapped me on the shoulder. She leaned into me as we wound our way through town. When I started showing her what the chopper had on Old Wire Road, she slipped her hands beneath my jacket; the feel of them so close was like manna dropping from heaven.
Nothing moves the way a Ducati does, and nothing feels like she did on that night, her chest against my back, her knees pressing into my legs as we rounded bend after bend. I thought for a second that we could keep going, somewhere away from there. When I finally slowed down, she let go of me, held her arms straight out, and rode like that through the darkness.
What I wanted at that moment was to drive off the road and onto the path that led to the forest. I wanted to lift her off that bike and put my arms around her and feel the length of her body against mine. But she was still wearing a wedding ring, and I still wasn’t that kind of guy. So I kept driving, and when we got back to my place, I asked, “Why do you stay married to him?”
Her hair was wild from the ride, her eyes bright. She looked ten years younger than she had when she arrived, and I regretted for a moment bringing up the subject.
She shrugged, looked away. “I’m not worth much,” she said. I tried to protest, but she raised her hand. “I know you think I am, but I’m not. I don’t know how to be with anybody. Not really be,” she said. “He doesn’t love me, not in any way that matters, so it works out. I leave him alone, he leaves me alone.”
“That’s no way to live,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “I know. But I’ve wrecked every good thing that’s come my way — everything except you. You got out just in time,” she said, and then she laughed, a hollow laugh that made everything around me feel empty.
I opened two beers and handed her one, then downed mine. She sat in my recliner, the one piece of furniture I’d taken from my house. “I don’t remember getting out,” I said. “I remember being told to leave.”
“All the same,” she said, and her mouth turned down. I’d never seen her cry, and I wondered if this was as close as she came.
I poured myself three fingers of whiskey while she stood and walked to the window. I’d yet to put up blinds. “Sorry your marriage didn’t work out,” she said.
“It worked for a good long while,” I said. “It worked well enough.”
“My marriage never has worked right. The things I’ve done … ,” she said.
“Not my place to judge,” I said, and took another drink. “Not anybody’s place to judge.”
She tapped her fingers on the arm of the recliner. It was a habit I remembered well; she had never been able to stay still.
“I had one perfect night in my life,” she said. “The night of the dance. Me in velvet, you in that ridiculous tux. I’ve had a thing for tuxes ever since.”
My glass was empty. I could hear a group of kids outside, probably on their way to toilet paper somebody’s yard — anything to make Halloween last.
“And I have a thing for velvet, but only if you’re in it.”
The wind whistled across the roof line. A car drove by with the stereo up. I was treading on treacherous ground. I was sinking into the past.
She stood and handed me her beer bottle. She touched my cheek and her hand was cold. “I’ll try not to come back,” she said, and she turned to leave.
“I want you to come back,” I said. “Just without the ring.”
She didn’t even turn around, just shook her head and walked out into the night. Every footfall was a new heartache, but I stood on the porch and watched anyway. And when I finally went inside, I flicked on every light and unlocked the doors. “She’ll be back,” I said, but of course, there was no one there to hear it.
Marla Cantrell received a 2014 Arkansas Arts Council Fellowship Award for her work in short fiction. Read her past stories published in Deep South here.