We sat on the steps waiting for the storm. Rachel spit watermelon seeds into the twilight. Lightning flashed behind a bank of clouds and I got to 10 before thunder rolled.
“Hand me a slice,” I said.
We slurped cold melon, searching for seeds. Juice trickled down our wrists.
“Got one,” she said. “You?”
Mine didn’t make it past the bottom of the stairs. Rachel’s we lost sight of out in the darkness. Best of three turned into best of five then seven. She had the knack, I didn’t.
We were celebrating her resignation. Nineteen years as a psych nurse in a residential facility for kids, burnt out since year number two. At home, she’d talk on the phone for hours, to friends, her sisters, rehashing the stories she’d told me at dinner: boys who lit the classroom hamster on fire, twelve-year-olds who railed Ritalin. She made light of it, her left ear all hot and red from the phone. “The solution to pollution is dilution,” she’d say. I worked in waste water treatment, I taught her that. The edge to her voice cut a little, or maybe she was just being funny.
Lightning strobed across the prairie. Eight seconds later, thunder rumbled. Rachel shivered, although it must have been seventy degrees. I held an imaginary microphone up to her, a thing we used to do with spatulas in the kitchen. “Rachel Stevens, besides champion seed-spitting, what’s next?”
Raindrops began to fall so wide apart you could hear each one hit the ground. She stood to go inside.
“It’s hardly raining. Don’t go.” I wiggled the ghost mic. “What next?”
She sat down again. Her hair brushed my bare arm.
“I want to go away.” She sighed the words into the clouds.
More lightning. Raindrops fell faster, closer together. Wind sent some of them in under the porch to hit our foreheads and cheeks. Seven seconds until thunder.
“How about someplace the weather can sneak up on us for a change? A cabin in the Rockies, the sequoias in Kings Canyon?” I said. We would fly out of Kansas City, rent a car big enough to sleep in, like the old van back when we followed the Dead, sleeping bags zipped together, cooler stocked with beer.
“Not a vacation. Just away.” She leaned forward, hugged her skirt around her legs.
I swatted a mosquito from my ear. Seconds later the damned thing came back. I flipped up my sweatshirt hood. “You mean from everyone?”
“I do.” Wind blew strands of Rachel’s dark hair straight into the air.
I could only see the back of her, shoulders hunched. I’d wondered sometimes if it was me. What if after all the cheering her up and on, telling her: go back to college, study something new, just quit, Rach, we can manage, your happiness is worth more than $22.50 an hour, I’d been helping her solve the wrong problem?
“You waited till now to tell me?” I wanted her to sit up. Look at me. An hour ago she moaned at the first bite of the ribeye I’d grilled for the occasion, used her fingers instead of her fork on the asparagus. She’d smiled across the table at me when her teeth split the skin of the perfectly boiled baby potatoes.
“Was there a better time?” She sounded surprised that it mattered.
I pictured our rooms impassable with stacked boxes, hers and mine, how we’d sort and separate our accumulations. She’d take the cat, the piano, and probably the avocado green colander. We’d have to tell people. Jesus, was there someone else? Was she fucking around with someone else? I couldn’t breathe. I waited for lightning, counted till thunder.
“I’m staying at my sister’s next month,” she said.
Ants crawled over the melon rinds. June bugs dashed their clumsy bodies against the screens where light poured from the living room. Otis Reading crooned about his yearning arms from our stereo (my stereo, my Otis). We were supposed to be dancing now, in the storm, passing the champagne between us, the mint of Rachel’s lip balm on the bottle making every sip taste like her kiss. The rain eased, blew south. Lighting pulsed. I forgot to count.
“Tom, say something.” She sat up. Our arms touched.
“How long’ve you been planning this?”
“Thinking about it since my notice last month. Maggie needs someone for the horses and gardens when they go to Nantucket. It fell into place, you know?” She said it so casually, like telling me she needed to pick up a gallon of milk.
I’d looked at a place, a few years back – studio with two burners and a mini-fridge – over in Lawrence. The rental agent noticed my ring, asked did my wife know what I was up to. Just seeing what’s available, you never know, I said. He shook his head and left me standing on the porch in the flat light of winter.
I cleared my throat to make room for words. “And after that?”
“After that?” The crease between her brows deepened. “I’ll come home.”
I leaned forward, dropped my head into my hands. “I thought—“
“Hey, hey.” Rachel reached into my hood and squeezed the back of my neck. “It’s just a month and then I’ll be ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“Anything, I guess.”
A shiver chased itself from her fingertips to the top of my head. In my mind, I unpacked the boxes I’d filled with hers and mine. The cat and the piano would stay. The colander returned to the kitchen, ours again but off-kilter, a little out of place.
Lightning flickered against my eyelids. I counted to twelve, still waiting for thunder.
Jennifer Audette lives in Vermont, where it’s still possible to have friends who don’t own Smartphones, or cell phones at all, and who navigate using collections of paper maps called gazetteers. You can read more of her work in Stoneboat, Crack the Spine, and Fiction Fix. Contact her at email@example.com