NOR 19 #44: A Million Tigers Who Aren’t Mad at You

By Sandy Nietling

Featured Art: Abstract–Flowers in the Left by Carl Newman

My Mexican boyfriend cannot tell me if he’s ever killed a person. This is not because of a language barrier on either side. I asked my question clearly enough, and he is a good conversationalist with a decent English vocabulary. Still, Raf furrows his dark brows for a long moment, apparently needing time to puzzle through the facts as he knows them. Finally he frowns. “I’m not sure.”

When I ask my American boyfriends if they’ve killed someone, they laugh the way that they’re meant to laugh. Then, while they’re busy being surprised or trying to work up a clever response, I can worry about the papers I have to grade or how much longer the sliced pineapple in the refrigerator will last before I have to give it to the orioles in my backyard. That’s why you ask about death in the first place. It’s supposed to buy conversational elbow room, but Rafael has done the unexpected and provoked my attention instead of letting it drift away. It is not until later, in the dark of my bedroom, that he is relaxed enough to explain his crime.

“Back in Mexico, I was driving at night. There was an old man walking in the road, but I didn’t see him in time.” He pauses. “I was scared, you know, a kid. I told myself, maybe he was okay, so I kept driving. But probably he was dead.”

I consider this information. What did he see that made him think maybe okay, but probably dead? I try to picture the old man myself, crumpled in the ditch, staring up in lifeless wonder at the stars. The body becomes smaller in my rearview mirror, then it blinks away from me, too, ascending into some far-off heaven. I reach over to stroke Raf’s hair, confirmation that I have not judged him for the frightened boy he once was, but he is already asleep.

Neither of us are natives here in Raleigh. Rafael is from a dusty patch south of Chihuahua, and I come from the Great Lakes snowbelt, where the land is flat enough to ride a bicycle anywhere you’d want to go and the seasons are a serious business. Rafael officially has his own place, an apartment he shares with men he claims are his cousins. I’ve never seen the place, though, because he says there’s nothing to see. He shows up at my house to escort me to our destinations, mostly parks or cheap neighborhood restaurants where we always split the check. Once in a while we make it to a club, but only when I can buy our drinks with a ladies’ night special. Nevertheless, he makes a show of more auspicious gallantry, racing ahead of me to open doors and bringing me things that I understand to be gifts: handfuls of loose peppermints, opened boxes of macaroons, and once, a baby rabbit with mange.

“Because you’re a teacher,” he explained with a smile. “You’ll know what to do with it.”

I nodded as though this made sense. We gently washed the rabbit in my kitchen sink, then set it in the dense shrubs behind my house along with a few spinach leaves. The people next door have an orange tabby cat that hunts in my yard. Sometimes I find partial mice next to my flower pots, but there was no reason to mention that to Raf. The baby rabbit would be just fine, I assured him, as if explaining doggy heaven to a child.

His sister Luana used to be a student of mine, a serious girl who met me at the library for extra work on English grammar. Raf brought her sometimes, then all the time, sitting quietly in one of the puffy armchairs while Luana and I conjugated irregular verbs. One day I told him he was a good brother for helping her. It was more of a calculated guess than a compliment, but it was effective nonetheless. His mouth curved into a smile that seemed to surprise his own somber face, and after that session he stalled his sister in the vestibule so that they could walk out of the library together, with Raf and I continuing on to my place after Luana had been left at her door.

It could have ended a couple weeks later when Luana informed me that she no longer wanted help with her English. We had just been laughing hard at something I said, and then Luana was telling me that she was done. I thought maybe she was attempting to make her own little joke, so I laughed some more to help her out, but her face remained impassive.

There was no time to regroup. All I could do was tell her that I understood completely, as if I were about to suggest the same thing myself. We were standing on the sidewalk outside her apartment building. I’d always wondered what it looked like inside her place, if it was filled with bright Mexican pottery and pepper plants, and now I was never going to find out. She went inside without thanking me for all my help.

“It’s not about you,” Raf said. “She’s too busy with work to keep the tutoring.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I answered, waving my hand dismissively. “She can do whatever she wants.”

“I can walk you home.”

“No, don’t bother.” I was already turning on my heel, finished with both of them. But Rafael was faster than I was. I never saw him get ahead of me, but there he was, waiting on my porch as I walked up my driveway.

That was when he asked me to be his girlfriend. It wasn’t something that had crossed my mind before, and it was so old-fashioned anyway, like raising your hand in class for permission to use the bathroom. He pulled me up the steps and into his arms, his breath hot on my face. “I want you to be my girlfriend. You know you love me.”

He couldn’t have believed that, but I was okay with hearing it, the same way I’m okay when palm readers assure me that I have a deep heart line.

“Do you love me?” It suddenly occurred to me to ask.

“Oh, chica,” he laughed. We both waited, wondering what he might say next. But there wasn’t anything more.

So I am officially a girlfriend. It does not follow that Rafael is an official boyfriend, however. The phone just rings whenever I call his apartment, and more than once he’s forgotten to show up when we had plans to meet. Other times he appears when there is no plan at all, calling me tonta and rearranging the dishes in my cupboards to suit his own preferences. He’s fantastical, like the farrago suitor I pretended to have in high school who wasn’t just a sensitive Canadian, but also the lead singer in a mathcore band. Raf’s unpredictability is enough to keep me from mentioning him in the conversations I have at work, where I do most of my talking. I especially don’t bring him up with my best friend Erin, who would have to get her own Mexican boyfriend if she knew. Everything in my life becomes her next thing. When I started doing hot yoga, she had to join the same class. And when she found out that my father was dead, then all I heard about was how her father was almost dead. She teaches sociology at the same community college where I teach, so I can’t keep my entire life out of her swallowing gaze.

“Cute necklace!” she’ll say. “Where’d you get it?”

Just like that. It does not matter that my thick bold beads are all wrong for her, that her neck is better suited for the sort of frail chains that sit against the throat like a scar. She wants to be me. So in the end I tell her because there is no one else to hear the words, and I realize that they need to be said. Erin nods at my stories, solemn, like an animal sipping from a swift current. Rafael is still a language that I only speak phonetically, sounding out his syllables without comprehending his meaning. I have no expectation that she can translate for me, or advise me, or even care about my outcome, but the comfort is that she cannot do these things. My life is still my own.

*

American men are different. They’re different from Raf, at least. This was also Erin’s conclusion, but that doesn’t keep it from being true. My last American boyfriend always complained about my refrigerator full of guava and lacinato kale, so it’s nice that Raf and I never argue about food. When he comes back with the Cuban takeout I sent him to fetch, he unpacks it in the kitchen and silently serves it to me on one of my plates. I settle into my meal without comment. My mind is on the rich, salty protein and my empty stomach. It is several minutes before I realize that Raf is not eating.

“I’m sure the baby rabbit is safe. He’s probably taking a nap right now.” His head shakes, dismissing the suggestion.

“Then what’s on your mind?”

He still does not answer, and in fact has not sat down or taken off his jacket.

“Why don’t you stay awhile,” I offer, in case he needs an invitation. I pat the empty chair next to me at my dining table to show that he is welcome in my space. Instead he turns on the TV and sits heavily on the sofa. It’s childish because he’s not even watching whatever is on, so after I finish eating I put on some Senegalese folk music to soften the mood. He doesn’t speak Wolof and neither do I, but I’ve read the liner notes often enough that I can call out the lyrics in both English and Spanish like a UN translator. Raf still sulks in front of the TV, unmoved by the artistry I am sharing. I start dancing so that he can see that this music is meant to be enjoyed.

“This one is about a pretty hummingbird,” I inform him as the next song starts, swaying my hips in front of him. “Colibrí bonito, tra la la!”

And then I am sitting on the floor. I know that I did not slip—someone once told me that I should study ballet because I am graceful. How can it be that Raf has knocked me down and is overturning my furniture? It is an attack. He is attacking me. I crawl to the front door, pausing for his hands to drag me back for some unspeakable violence, but this does not happen. There is a dim realization that I am not injured, that he is not trying to catch me. He is back in the kitchen, whipping dishes against the wall because someone put them in the wrong cupboards. Porcelain crashes beautifully in the rhythm of some unknown sonnet form until my shelves are empty and sweat shines his face. I am sobbing. It must be that now, finally, I am next. I should play dead, but my stupid hands keep flailing at the doorknob, unable to twist it open. He strides toward me with great purpose. I make myself as small as possible on the floor. He steps over my body without seeing me, opens the door, and then he is gone.

*

The thing about your mother is that you’ll never be your mother, even when you are. I am my mother every day—not the mother I have, but the mother I deserve. When Rafael shows up on my porch the next morning, I forgive him because that is what a good mother would do. He does not greet me with words, instead nuzzling into my shoulder and petting my hair.

“You smell like milk,” he observes.

“It’s okay,” I tell him, accepting this as an apology for now. We take my car and drive around looking for October garage sales, buying dishes to replace the ones that he broke. He smiles at each piece I pick up from the dusty tables and tells me oh yes, corazón, squeezing my hand too tightly. He pays for everything, which is only right, but it feels like exploitation to watch him make the purchases with loose change after his first few singles are spent. This is almost worse than the dish-breaking, this oversaturated version of cheap domesticity.

*

He is a no-show for our next lunch date, but manages to meet me at the dog park on Saturday because it turns out that Raf loves dogs.

“You should rescue a dog from a shelter, corazón. You have a nice yard for dogs to play.”

His massive arm is around my shoulders, too heavy, but I lean into him for the warmth. I have nothing against dogs or any other beast; in fact, my heaven is full of tiny animals. It’s populated with doll-sized giraffes and great roving masses of wee tigers that will rub against my legs like friendly house cats. Still, the idea of getting a dog at Raf’s request is too much like planning a baby to- gether. I try to change the subject just a little.

“Did you have a dog when you were a boy?”

“Yes, we had several dogs.”

“That must have been nice, to have the love of a pet.”

“They were just strays. They were not beautiful like these.” His gesture takes in two galloping Weimaraners.

“But you had that relationship with a creature. There was no way I was getting a dog or a cat. My mother hated animals. Can you imagine that? Someone who hates animals?”

“Some people don’t like dogs.”

“And music,” I add, warming to my subject. “We weren’t allowed to turn on the radio in the car. And when my mother got home from work, she put on her pajamas and just sat there. If we wanted dinner or clean clothes, we had to fend for ourselves.”

He does not answer. This must be making me sound horrible, so I try turning the conversation back to him. “Anyway, what kind of toys did you have when you were growing up?”

“I played with rocks.”

That is unexpected. I have to take a moment to picture it properly. An earnest boy is in a bleached, wind-swept yard. He is alone, but he is building a miniature cathedral from the smooth desert stones. And his faithful dog is at his feet, eyes shining up at the boy with mute love. I think of the cheap grocery store dolls I had, Marbies and Narbies instead of Barbies, with their scuffed plastic faces and matted blonde hair that was somehow filthier than dirt itself. I don’t know why I want this, why I need us to believe that his nothing should be prized more than my sad something.

“Rocks are beautiful,” I tell him. “Creativity, you know? I bet you really learned how to be creative. Because you’re a dreamer.”

Raf makes the sound that means I should stop talking. I was going to mention that my mother made me share my underwear with my sister, but it’s just as well that the conversation didn’t get that far. Probably his whole family had to share the same pair of underpants, and in this area I do not care to be one-upped.

*

“I would go back home if I could,” he tells me the next morning. “Why don’t you go back home to visit? Your mother, your sister?”

“I don’t need to do that, honey. I live here. And you live here.” “You miss them. I miss my family.”

“But you have family in Raleigh.” As I say this it occurs to me that I only know of his family. I’ve never met his cousins, and I haven’t seen his sister since our tutoring fell apart. “Maybe you could bring them here for dinner. I’d love to see Luana again.”

He plays with my hair in a way that appears to absorb all of his attention. “Is your sister as pretty as you?” he asks.

“No. I don’t know. We look the same, if that’s what you mean.”

“We should take a trip to visit her for Thanksgiving,” he muses. “I could drive you.”

He means that he could drive me in my car. Rafael has no vehicle of his own and probably no driver’s license, either.

“It would make more sense to fly,” I hear myself say.

He agrees immediately, assuring me that he will pay for his own ticket, as if a real travel plan had just been made. It would be ridiculous to reject his offer to pay his way, especially since we aren’t going anywhere, so I play along to keep him happy. When Raf insists on picking up my dinner check that night for the first time ever, I begin to think that he is serious about our trip.

I give it a couple more days, just to make sure that the new payment trend holds, and when it does I call my sister to talk about a visit. Katie supposes that people will be glad to see me if I were to come for Thanksgiving. “You weren’t thinking of staying with Mom, were you?”

“No, a hotel.”

“That’s going to be best. She doesn’t have the space for a house guest.”

My first instinct is to correct her, since I am not a guest and our mother still lives in the same house that had enough room to raise both of us, but I already know that my logic won’t change anything. I can see my absence there, or rather the absence of my absence, a space filled when life drifted into the gap I once occupied. It makes me want to sweep my arms wide, to reclaim my wingspan.

“Hey, I was planning to bring my fiancé with me, if you think that would work.”

“You have a fiancé?” Katie sounds astonished that this is possible. “Wow, congratulations.”

“You’ll like him. He’s really nice. He loves animals and he’s got the most wonderful family.”

She has already recovered. “He sounds really nice. Yeah, you should bring him.”

*

We decide to arrive in Detroit the Sunday before Thanksgiving and rent a car for the drive to Spring Arbor. Rafael looks at the map and makes a list of impractical places to visit. For a while I try to explain that we cannot go to the beach during the winter, but I give up in the face of his unrelenting optimism. It is exciting to have this in front of us. I purchase my own ticket and give him the details so he can book the same flight. The hotels are on me, I tell him, so he doesn’t have to worry about paying me back. He responds by becoming careless again in my kitchen, and then in all my other rooms, too. This time he is immediately sorry, weeping on the floor while he tells me that he never meant to be so poor. We pick up the mess together, then I wrap myself in a blanket and creep outside to my porch swing. The neighbor’s tiger cat is there, curled into a comfortable ball. When I step forward to pet her, she makes a hissing jump away from me and disappears into the darkness.

The week before our trip, I take Rafael to my office to show him around on a day that I know my friend Erin will be there. She insists on taking us to lunch, and since it’s a good extension of my experiment, I don’t argue with the idea or her choice of restaurant. Raf’s perfect table manners are a pleasant surprise, even though I cannot pinpoint, why, precisely, they should be remarkable. Erin finishes first and pays her bill. She tells Raf that it was lovely to finally meet him.

He agrees that it was nice to meet her. Then he adds, “Are you going to get a Mexican boyfriend now?”

Erin smiles, confused. My own expression freezes. “Excuse me?” she asks.

“You want to be like this chica.” He nods at me. “She says you follow her lead all the time.”

I will not look at Erin. I can’t, and there is no point in looking, since I already know what I’ll see. There are things I might do. I could cut in, talk too fast, and laugh as if this all made delightful sense. I could explain that Raf is uneducated, that his English is dreadful. But I don’t. All I can do is stare hard at him as Erin murmurs something about imitation and flattery, then leaves.

“It was a joke,” I assure her later on the phone. “I was joking that he was so handsome that you would want to get a boyfriend just like him. I swear to God that’s all it was. I was trying to build up his confidence to meet you.”

“Oh.”

“You can see that, right? He isn’t very comfortable around people.”

“He’s lucky to have you helping him.”

“Oh, no, honey,” I protest. It’s not clear if she is being sarcastic, but I will play along and take her words at face value. It will take some time, of course, but I’m hopeful that I’m on the right track. I don’t see her on campus the next day, or the day after, so I start an email support campaign, filling her inbox with Photoshopped cats and discount offers for chunky necklaces.

*

“Why did you say that?” There have been enough days now. I need to know.

Rafael stares at my ceiling. Not to find the answer written there, I think. There is no sky inside my house, no stars to make us small, no God nor mighty purpose, but still we have to look up when we are searching.

“Why did you tell Erin what I said?” I stare at the ceiling plaster with him, trying to share the vision. His breaths are regular, scented with spiced rum. It is possible that he has not heard me, even though I am sitting on the bed beside him. I wonder if I have stopped smelling like milk.

*

I decide to make the trip to Detroit by myself. Raf is too unstable a substance to risk on the road. It is the Saturday before our flight, but there’s no fix for that now. He is stoic when I tell him, then we agree to go dancing at a club as if nothing has changed between us. I wear the sparkly blue dress that he likes best, a farewell gift that I give benevolently. He does not call me corazón and he keeps his hands off me even when we slow-dance, perhaps to make it easier for me to acquire a new boyfriend while we are here.

And I am thinking about it. We are nearing the end of this thing, and something must come next. Maybe I will meet a nice man in Michigan. He will be as tall as Raf—that’s easy enough to pretend while my arms are wrapped around Raf’s brown neck. My Michigan boyfriend will smile easily and won’t bring me rabbits or lie twitching in my bed with nightmares of who knows what.

I hand Raf my drink when I go to the ladies’ room to touch up my hair. It only takes a moment, but when I get back, my glass is sitting on an empty table and he is gone. I casually take in the dance floor, then the bar, and after dancing around a bit myself I finally see him on the other side of the room, laughing with some dark-haired girls. He looks magnificent without me. His detachment, so antiseptic for him, is instantly sick on my skin like a weeping sunburn. Still, I manage to finish my drink and get one more because I used to like the song that’s playing. The sounds that come out of my mouth are gibberish, empty, sweeping spirants that bob alongside the melody like a drunk sparrow. I don’t actually know the lyrics, but no one is standing close enough to me to tell the difference. From a distance I know that my singing looks right.

When the song is done, I make sure to tell Rafael that I’m leaving. He barely nods an acknowledgement in my direction, and I am utterly dismissed. The walk home is cold, almost cold enough to snow, and it is fair to hate Raleigh for failing to muster a pretty snowfall on a night that could use one. I crawl into bed without taking out my contacts or even undressing.

In the morning my eyes are rimmed in heavy red. There’s plenty of time to get to the airport, though, so I treat myself to the remaining kale in my refrigerator. After a last look at my suitcase, I throw in the crumpled blue sequin dress.

“There’ll be a party,” I assure the fashionable woman seated across from me at the Delta gate. Hers is the Dallas flight ahead of mine and she is my new best friend.

“What will you wear?” she asks. Her name is Gina and she is decked out like the silver fox that she is.

“Crystal iris sequins,” I tell her. “Sky blue. Keyhole neckline.”

Gina nods her approval. “Classy. You have great taste.”

This is the mother I should have had. I listen to all of her advice about men and love, and by the time her flight begins to board, we stand to embrace like real family. When it is my flight’s turn to board, a man who is not Rafael takes Rafael’s seat next to mine.

“When did you get your seat assignment?” I ask.

This must sound like an accusation. He claims that he does not remember, but how can that be true? He puts on headphones and closes his eyes immediately after takeoff. I have to wonder now if Raf ever bought his ticket. I stare out the window, watching the landscape change beneath me from brown to white. It appears that some places have managed to produce real winter scenery already. For the first time I start to consider the driving part of my trip. I’m out of practice for snow. There’s never more than a couple of inches at a time in Raleigh, and if the roads aren’t clear, I just walk where I’m going. I remind myself that I am safe, still perfectly safe in my airplane seat.

“Excuse me,” I nudge my seat friend.

The man takes off his headphones, surprised that I have more to say.

“I’ve been out of state for a long time and I’m going back for my mother’s funeral—”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“—Yes, thank you, but I don’t feel confident about driving in the snow anymore. What advice would you give me?”

“No one can pick you up? Well, the best thing you can do is go slow. And give yourself more time for stopping. You need more stopping distance.”

I nod, trying to make it seem that it is all coming back to me. He’s putting his headphones back on. Go slow and more stopping distance? This is a short list of principles.

In Detroit I pick up my rental car, a two-door Ford Focus. I reserved a compact because that’s what I’m used to driving, and I am relieved that I have no trouble getting to my hotel. When I call my mother to tell her that I landed safely, she sounds annoyed, as if I am interrupting something good on her TV. I keep it brief.

“I’m sorry that Rafael couldn’t come after all,” I tell her. “His mom got sick at the last minute.”

This confuses my mother, and then me, until I realize that my sister Katie has not mentioned my fiancé to anyone. Somehow Katie knew that Raf was going to have a madre enferma.

My hotel room is clean and the tub fills quickly with hot water. I don’t bother opening the curtains to check the view. It’s not even an hour and a half to Spring Arbor, so I sleep late the next morning and go down to the hotel’s restaurant for lunch. A tall man enters my field of vision, and at once the dining room is full of men who might be Rafael. I know that it is conceit to think he followed me all the way here, but still I must analyze these faces, reviewing and discarding each one as Not Rafael before I can focus on the mashed potatoes on my plate. My hands are shaking, and it’s not just for him. I know that I need a plan for myself, something undaunted that I can tell my mother when she does not ask me if I am happy. At once I decide to invite Erin to take a cooking class with me. We’ll be like sweet sisters, laughing over our dishes while we drink wine and flirt with the instructor. It will happen soon enough. It’s not much of a lie to say it’s happening already.

The snow is coming down hard. My rental car has an ice scraper in the back seat. It should have come with gloves and a parka. I’m wearing my thick raincoat, but that’s almost the same as being naked. The wind is terrible, a white animal tearing me to the bone while I fumble through scraping snow, then scaly ice off the windshield. Once I’m back in the car, I shove my dead fingers against the heater vents, remembering that the weather was one more reason why I ran so far away from this place. I pull out of the parking lot, inching to the freeway on-ramp. I don’t have to remember to go slow. Slow is the only speed possible. The snow is coming down like the sky itself is shredding away.

In Jackson I finally get off the freeway and on to country roads. It’s worse, if that’s possible. The traffic thins as the roads branch toward my mother’s house until finally my lane is empty. I only have thirty more miles to go, but there are no cheerful taillights ahead of me to guide my way. I drop my speed even further. I am alone here, a warm dot on a landscape that has no use for me. But I drive on because I have no choice. There is no stopping or going back now. My eyes ache from staring into the white. Then I notice another dot behind me, some other struggling soul here in the wilderness. And I am leading his way. I wish for both of our sakes that I could be trusted with the responsibility, but I’m slower now than ever, only guessing at where the road must be. When I can, I risk a glance in my mirrors. The dot has become a pickup truck, confidently closing the gap between us. I try for a little more speed to stay ahead.

The rented Focus glides dangerously over the icy surface, shifting from moments when it is under my control to breathtaking, suspended slides. The truck behind me is closer now, headlights bright in my rearview mirror. I am too slow for him. He moves in even closer, as if he can push my car forward. I dare to take one hand off the steering wheel long enough to twist the rearview mirror up so that I cannot see him at all. There is enough to worry about in front of me, under me. My car crawls blindly through another curve, somehow sliding along the same arc as the icy pavement.

There is a sudden dark shape next to me. It is the truck and the man, passing me on the road. It must only take a few seconds for him to make the move, but he keeps the truck alongside my car long enough to make eye contact. He is young, probably good-looking like Rafael. Yes, I can see that he is a god. His face is sneering, at my little car, at me. He wanted to see who it was that kept him back, and now that he knows, he flips me off as he accelerates past me, speeding off into the white haze. There was no contest and it was never a game, but still he won and he insists that I know it. His truck crests the next hill and disappears. All I can do is keep inching along the road, seeing myself through his eyes now, a stupid, slow person with no business being here in the first place. I want to be home. Not here home, but Raleigh home. Not even there, in truth, but I may as well stick with the familiar. My car fishtails alarmingly, bringing my attention back to the road. The snow squall breaks open for a moment. I can see the truck ahead of me, a bold thing racing through the white. Then it, too, begins to swerve. It swings left, then overcorrects to the right, pinwheeling off the road and colliding silently against a utility pole.

The truck is motionless. I think that maybe the man will crawl out, but I don’t see movement. Slowly, my car makes its way closer. The upside-down truck sits as if it has always been there, a mechanical sculpture installed with the utility pole itself. My phone is in my purse, so there’s no question that I have the capacity to take some action. It is not possible to call for help, though, so long as I am driving through this hellish place. I need to keep both hands on the steering wheel or I will die myself. My plan—and I instantly have one—is to stop when I get to the place where he slid off the road. I will call to report this accident, to 911, I suppose, although I have to wonder if there isn’t a more appropriate number. Somehow, this doesn’t feel like an emergency. An emergency is a fire, or someone crying on your kitchen floor while he whispers horror stories about eating dogs. But when I reach the place where the tire tracks slice off the road, my car keeps driving. The truck is positioned in a way that blocks my view of the driver’s seat. The god is in there. I know because he was in there once and he has not come stumbling out into the snow. He is hurt, or possibly dead, but most likely just thinking things over. The universe does things like that. You think you’ve won, and then you’re upside down, stuck in your place that you never knew was your place, but you sure know it now.

It would be a mistake to stop here to make the call. I understand that now. It is impossible for anyone to pull over in these snowdrifts. If another vehicle were to come along, there would be no room to navigate around me. I would be creating more hazard if I were to stop. The upside-down man has probably called 911 already. He probably blamed his accident on me. That’s okay. He can have his own perceptions. The facts are the facts, and the fact is that I cannot justify stopping here to make a redundant phone call. The right thing to do is to call the regular police department number from my mother’s house, if I ever get there myself.

I cannot see it yet, but I know exactly what it looks like. Eighteen years are enough to learn a place and another eighteen aren’t enough to forget it. I can see my old house sitting back from the road, with its dirty kitchen and cheap rose-printed china stacked in all the wrong cupboards. I can see my mother, who looks just like my mother in the photos I’ve kept, except now she’s drawn with a heavier pen. She will play her part so long as my sister is there, shading her like a baby from the glare of the sun. The woman wouldn’t last a week in Mexico. And I’ll keep my raincoat wrapped tightly around me and I will thank her for letting me come, for letting me into my house.


Sandy Nietling works as a technical writer and instructional designer. She lives in Michigan.

Originally published in Issue 19.

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