Grounds

by H. W. Florayn

I get out of bed this morning once again noticing it’s empty, missing the soft Tetris of another body. Even in the years I would wake up folded into you, I knew your side would be empty soon, and sometimes that’s harder than just having it empty to begin with. My legs wake up as I bumble down the stairs and head for the mug cupboard above the coffee pot. You always said coffee tastes better in paper cups and I scoffed, but I secretly understand. My coffee tastes better in this special mug that used to belong to my dad. Well, I guess it still does belong to him because moving back across the ocean and into their home with all of my furniture and cookware and broken heart back in Jerusalem, I don’t actually own anything in this world right now. But it’s too early in the morning to explore the principles of property ownership. Anyway, it’s a ceramic mug that stands on adorable little feet. There’s even one toe (or foot finger, as you call it) crossed over the others like it’s shy or embarrassed. The handle is a little too small, but we both know that even the most perfect possessions are imperfect, aren’t they? Lately, I’ve noticed a little click when hot coffee hits the bottom of the mug. I’m not sure if it’s a crack or an adjustment to heat. It worries me because I hold on to things tightly and don’t want to let them go, as you know. I pour myself a cup from the coffee pot. Blasphemy, you’d say. It’s a long way off from Turkish coffee, though I will say that the smell still has the power to create a moment of peace, just like yours.

Your hands rarely stayed at ten and two. You fidgeted with the music, with your beard—every man I’ve ever known and respected plucks at his beard hairs. I realized that I started stroking my own chin, sucking some masculine wisdom through the straw of habit. You were either satisfied with the station or bored of searching and cranked the volume up to nearly intolerable, something else I’ve picked up in my recent days when the world itself is too loud. You pushed the song out the windows and the sunroof, hollering along with Metallica. You leaned your chair back to an angle that, despite your height, made you strain to see over the steering wheel. For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve wiggled around the driver’s seat and in and out of traffic. I long ago decided I cannot change you, and that I’d use moments like these as breathing exercises. You moved on from radio fiddling and found other buttons to push, honking my boob like a bike horn and dropping your hand to my thighs. I jumped, even though I’d been expecting your dancing spider hand would wind up there eventually. My hair swung around with the swirls of wind sweeping through the window and got sucked out the sunroof alongside the lyrics. I felt euphoric, and now very horny. At the top of a mountain about to fly or tumble depending on which way your mood went. You jerked the seat back upright, tired of lying back—even though it made it easier to put your hand up my skirt—your left hand on the lever, your right one digging beneath my clothing, and your knee controlling the wheel for a moment. I offered you an exasperated sigh. I wasn’t scared. Not of this at least. You sneezed out the open window.

We finally came to the bends after the long stretch of highway that would dump us into city traffic. Sun out (obviously), hot breeze, music blaring, your hand just below the hem of my black polka dotted skirt—a piece I reserved for work trips outside of the tiny Muslim village. We circled to the back of a parking garage and were about to get out for lunch when you turned the music down and said, “So, who do you plan to hook up with at camp? Anyone caught your eye?” The muscles that had been pumping an invisible brake pedal and twitching and releasing against your warm, wandering hand now stiffened completely. What’s worse than being baited is when you know you’re being baited and cannot help yourself from nibbling the worm anyway. If I had just let that worm dangle there…if I’d left it for another fish…but that’s not in my nature and you knew that. I think that tempestuous, ardent need to solve every problem in front of me is what made you want to kiss and kill me at the same time. Tell me I’m wrong. I knew you were looking for an out. For permission. For clemency, I should’ve known. But also, a test to know how far I’d really walk with you. Sometimes I felt like our relationship was just like that game show where contestants jump over fake lava and swing from a giant foam launchpad to a wobbly ladder trying to race to the end of an obstacle course. But I wasn’t trying to race because I knew that getting through the double doors to the next level was perhaps one neither of us wanted to reach. One where we’d have to navigate in-laws who didn’t speak the same language, and raising a child in a family whose values about gender and finances and property ownership didn’t align in a country whose government would reject our legitimacy and slap us with disdain and punitive policies because I chose to marry someone and expand a family in a society they were trying to be rid of. One where I’d be loved and welcomed, and always, always outside because you could have just made it easier on everyone by marrying another Arab girl from the village. One where…shit, we’d have to actually be public with our relationship and acknowledge that we’d been holding a tumultuous secret from our colleagues for years and years. One where we’d have to take a deep look at the kind of person you really, really needed for a wife and a mother and if I could actually, truly merge the image you had in your head with my brazen opinions and lofty career goals. And if I could actually stomach being in this country for the rest of eternity and raising a future generation in all of this hostility and dust.

“I’m not interested in anyone else. I only want you.” We were supposed to be getting out and eating, but instead we sat there in your car, pulled off to the side in the fire lane with hazards blinking, and stuck, my rarely bare legs stuck to the hot seats of the car and just stuck in love with no way out. You were trying to create one, to force an early and quick painful release to evade a full blow later down the road and I wasn’t about to let you. I rather preferred to sit on my wobbly foam island in the middle of the lava just for the experience of being a part of the game—to know that we loved each other in this spec of time and place and that all of those questions in the next level didn’t yet have to be answered because here for now, surrounded by lava and chaos, I was only with you and that was enough. But it wasn’t enough for you because those doors loomed ahead and you knew we couldn’t make a home on this island.

On the way back, I remember rain. I can’t fathom that it rained. Never once in my lifetime there did it rain in the same season that I would have been wearing that skirt. I pressed myself into the passenger side window, trying to exist somewhere between inside and outside.

You asked what I wanted then. And I remember telling you, “I want someone who I can say ‘I love you’ to out loud and in public. I want to love you big and loudly and unabashedly,” which also wasn’t really fair, because I knew you had no idea what unabashedly meant. It was the first time I’d alluded to feeling that way. I imagine it to be the most horrific way to learn someone loves you; you trying to save us the pain of diving in, and I just sucked you under with me. I don’t regret it. But I still remember the pain and emptiness in my stomach as I said it, and the paradox of emotion and stoicism on your face, even though I know we were both staring straight ahead at the road pulling us toward whatever future we were heading into.

All I wanted more than anything right then was your mom. Weirdly it wasn’t my mom, who knows all of my secrets and rocked me after I was far too old to be rocked. I wanted your mom, with whom I shared the occasional pleasantries and a plate of warmth served from a steaming cauldron reheated in her in-house kitchen (not to be confused with her out-back kitchen that hosted the real wizardry and mess); with whom I could barely communicate but I felt in my soul that she understood me…us, and everything we wanted to be, and how happy we made each other, and the sorrow that that would cause, and she just simply observed us as we stumbled through it. I wanted a hug or a warm soup of all that. But instead, I was trapped in the car with you and knew that as soon as we got back to your village, I’d get in my own car and drive to the far side of Jerusalem. Away. Until I had to see you the following day as a colleague and nothing more, and see colleagues through eyes reddened by secret sorrow.

I don’t know why I hold this particular memory so vividly, because I can’t remember what happened after you parked, and I couldn’t decide to get as far away as possible or glue myself to the seat until you acknowledged that you loved me, and that that would be enough to camp on this island a bit longer. I think it was somewhere between the two: I got out so slowly, like a toddler who demands to put on her shoes by herself but really has no construct of time or interest in going out, and she’s taking her sweet ass time to make sure you know it. But I eventually drove away wearing my insides on the outside.

How did we find each other again that first time? Do you remember? You’d think that the rekindling of our romance would be more vivid than all of these freeze frames of that first time it was snuffed out. But I just know that we did find each other again. And again. And again.

And now, nine years after that first conversation and all of those agains, I’m sipping my sacrilegious American drip coffee on the front porch. Funny enough, it’s been raining. But really I reach my hand out to make sure it’s not a memory. I could hear it all through the night in an early summer storm and now it’s a surprisingly cool morning for May. I can’t see the mountain for all the fog. It’ll burn off eventually, but in the meantime, it’s puffing across the pond to where a heron is stalking fish from the weeds on the bank. I close my eyes and imagine that I’m sitting on a different porch under grapevines wrapped along the wires you’ve threaded. You’re under the carport chatting with your dad who’s still alive, leaning on that car that’s seen and heard our rhythmic battles between destiny and determination and if a car could roll its eyes, sending its high beams to the heavens in exasperation, it most assuredly would. There’s half a cigarette precariously placed on the side of the chair you’d been occupying, waiting, like me, for you to not forget its rightful place in your lips; knowing that you’ll probably wander off and find three or four other tasks before you eventually make your way back here. I take a drag so it doesn’t feel abandoned. The sheep are bleating in their office next to mine, but they won’t get fed until dark. My parents are starting to move around in the house and the dog comes out, blinking at me with a sleepy smile like he’s pleasantly surprised I’m here—it’s only been a year, but he’s a little dumb. The scene fades—the dry dirt of your recently planted garden and the mosque’s minaret jutting from the center of the village up into the hilly skyline in fading light, your dad’s chatter, and the taste of cigarette, and you…and I’m left with my own coffee and view. I raise my little footsie mug with its too-small handle and splash of cream embracing an entirely new day, toasting you as you are far away and many hours ahead most assuredly boiling water for a coffee—two and one quarter spoonfuls of Turkish grind, no sugar in a paper cup, and sliding your tongue across the rolling paper of a fresh cigarette, placing it behind your ear for that moment when you get in the car and lean the chair back a little too far, crank the music, and pull the future toward you.

H.W. Florayn is a wanderer, seeking opportunities to make the world a better place as she explores. She has a Master’s in Global Community Development and over a decade of experience working with youth, cultural exchange, community building, and creative education. She is currently in Brevard, North Carolina, searching for her next career move after several colorful chapters in Mexico, Asheville, and the Middle East. Meanwhile, she’s enjoying time with her dogs, donkeys, and family, playing Ultimate Frisbee, and hiking in the forest, listening for the answers to her existential questions.