5
min

Letters from the Gulf

Image of Ingrid

Ingrid

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A fool’s errand. I wanted to find the bar where we danced into the night, the dock where we slept in the back of your truck—
Sinews of the past leapt up, full-bodied. The gray clouds came closer and closer over the headlands, as though they formed a lid over the road. Everything lush green. I hear your voice say, like you could swim in it.
An instant after I let the windows down, I was sheathed in sweat. Raindrops misted the windshield as I crossed a corrugated bridge. These first drops splattered into a downpour, No trace of a town or the ocean. Just that pure, deep green, broken by muddy channels, and a thick fresh smell. It carried me back to how I felt then, when you were new to me, before our time together was outstripped by time spent with memories of you.
On a lush bend of road, I pulled over and began to write you this.

When I reached the town, everything seemed so familiar it took my breath: the raised, scattered houses and old tucked-away church, its white paint peeling. I kept looking for the cavernous warehouse building, purple neon illuminating a shack of a bar.
I got out and wandered the streets in the soft rain. I found the railroad tracks that run alongside the raised earth near the bayou. But each time I followed it to an inlet, its familiarity dissolved. No sign of a marina. I found bare earth, not the wide trees that shaded the railroad tracks we walked along. The rain was coming harder. I stepped inside a gas station. Off to the side, there was a dark smoky room full of tawny men bent over video poker machines.
“Excuse me . . .”
They turned blank faces to me. In the corner, an old man with shock-white hair smoked a cigarette.
“I—I’m looking for the marina—I think there’s a warehouse —and a bar—”
I was met with silence and a hostile, unperturbed look.
I stepped back outside and stood under the flickering light, trying to read the map and shelter from the rain. It took me a moment to notice that the old man had also come outside. He flicked his cigarette away. The wind caught his words.
“I’m sorry?” I said, stepping into the rain to get nearer to him.
“—place you mean. Marina got wiped out years ago, nothing left after the hurricane.” As he looked at me, his manner changed to one of condolence: “So sorry, ma’am.”
The kindness in his voice stung. I thanked him. He nodded and went back inside. I trudged up the street and back to my car. Back to the night, no nearer.

***

I drove further up the coast where I walked down the beach to a jetty that stretched down the shipping lane. The sea was illumined by the fragile, indecipherable shades that precede dawn. I drifted past fishermen who gazed intently at the waves. Static from their radios slid up into the soft, leaded glow. A mackerel spread of clouds shimmered above, the highest portion lit by a shaft of light. In the distance, a rust-colored ship was slowly coming toward land. I watched the disc of the sun glide over the horizon, and my mind slipped back to another sunrise.
It was that scruddy Gulf town—what was its name? With all the rusted motorboats and BUY 5LB SHRIMP GET 1LB FREE written on the side of stores in peeling paint. We stayed in an awful motel, a narrow room with threadbare blankets.
At the edge of night, I woke suddenly and began to work myself up.
Then you woke too and put your arms around me.
“Hey—what is it?”
“Love, I—” I was almost crying. “I really believe that I can be great. But I’m scared I’ll fuck it all up.”
It’s strange to remember how unsure I was. How tortured by obligations to my family in Houston. There was another night when I worried aloud and you said, “So forget them.” I was aching to, but scared of my ambition. When we took that road trip, I hadn’t yet made up my mind to go to New York.
“Hey, hey now. You’re a tough, gifted girl—or, woman, I should say. You are great. You just have to get out of your own way.”
You continued to hold me tightly while my breathing slowed to match yours. I murmured, “Thank you,” and violet-orange light stole through the windows.

With the sun overhead, I made my way back down the jetty.
“Next time, bring your rod,” a fisherman with a reddened face and wraparound sunglasses called out.
I walked back to my car along the sand in the stark, glaring light.

A few years ago, moving apartments for the umpteenth time, I was sorting through my books. I opened one of them and the front page startled me. We had both written our names in red Sharpie, a stretched between them.
Someday a stranger will find it in a bookstore and wonder who we were.

***

In my mid-twenties I went on a date with a friend of a friend. He and I couldn’t decide what to do so we walked to Central Park and fed potato chips to the ducks. I could tell by the way he looked at me that I could go home with him if I wanted to, and that seemed so sordid, so trifling. He was intelligent, with round dark eyes and a deadpan, defeatist sense of humor. He disparaged his graduate program and his friends. He talked about wasting his efforts with a sense of inevitability. He didn’t take his eyes from me as I made absent, encouraging remarks and he smiled and teased me, clearly glad to simultaneously foil and receive my optimism. My mind turned to you...
It must have been my idea that he and I ride the subway out to Coney Island. As we got close, the conversation wore so thin and the train became so empty that I started swinging from the hand-holds. Miles of brick housing projects slid by the window.
I missed the ocean. When he and I reached the boardwalk, I ran towards it.

The heart is a capacious place. Of course there have been others, and I believe in the generosity we practiced: that at any given moment a lover should feel they are the only one—it’s ungraceful to speak certain truths.
But it’s ungrateful not to speak others.
I can’t remember if it was before or after. At the end of a long, perfunctory night of drinking, I collapsed into a female friend’s bed and found myself crying, “I only ever loved—”
You.
That moment belongs with a host of others that don’t bear remembering.
The day itself: the incinerated smell, sharper than smoke, and haze of ash creeping through the air. The stillness. I squatted on a stoop and watched a businesswoman with cut feet walk by.
Weeks later on a lunch break, when there were still payphones on Madison Avenue, I hung up on you. At a library on 28th street I found an atlas and traced my finger over Kandahar. I overstayed my break by at least an hour and can hardly remember where I walked.
The letters you sent that I destroyed: about your sense of duty, about how to love generously, how to keep love and courage in a world that would corrode it. The airplane ticket to come back for Mardi Gras, 2002, that sat in my desk drawer, unused.
For months I kept seeing you on subways, in cafes, crossing busy streets. In my fury, I must have written you a hundred letters. But I have excised them. It became too painful. I got a really sweet one from your mom, saying that anyone you loved was loved by her, too.
I threw it away. I sometimes told myself I was glad you hadn’t lived to be disappointed by me or I by you; that whatever part of me died with you was worth less than the steeliness I called forth to go on.
My love, I didn’t mean it.

A dozen years later, back to the gulf coast—the woman I’ve become—running across a flat beach at moonrise, running who knows to what—
I’ve been stunned to find us still alive somewhere, to find you even temporarily restored to me. Your voice. The weight of your arms. Your profile when sleeping. Standing on the edge of a dock, watching me... I wouldn’t give up a second of you to stanch the pain. A temple stands long after its god has deserted it. There is a continuity of love which threads through any individual life and is perhaps its deepest substance, no less powerful for being synthetic to memory.
Since I met you, not a day has passed when you didn’t shape my thoughts.
I began to forget you.

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