A sturdy bridge connects his island to the mainland. I was terrified to drive over it, even though I was certain that the laws of physics weren't going to go against me that day. When I start a journey, things just seem to happen: planes take off and land, cars get rented, keys go into ignitions and I just drive to the destination, so weary from the entire drama of the travel that I sometimes forget what I was traveling to.
I stopped at the edge. The rented headlamps on the car illuminated the path before me. I could count each raindrop; I had time, after all, the way behind me clearly empty at 2 a.m. on the Wednesday before Christmas. White rain before me, red rain behind. I peered past the water to the slick oily roadway, a dark narrow ribbon swallowed at some point by the night. There was water beneath, and I imagined it churning up to swallow me and this crappy little tin box I'd scrimped and saved to borrow just so that I could cross this bridge. I put it in drive and drove.
I'd never seen anyone use one of those camp coffee pots, the percolators with the thick glass knobs and unburnable handles that my father insisted cooked the coffee past taste bud recognition. I marveled, then, at the first cup he poured for me from the pot, the shimmer on the surface of the black liquid reminiscent of the sheen on the roadway the night before. I drank the tarmac, toughening up my throat with each swallow. He taught me to drink it this way, his way, and I make coffee every morning in a pot similar to that one, except my surfaces aren't quite as slick and oily as his were back then.
The week was and was not what it should have been.
We tried to make a gumbo from scratch, each of us eager to prove our down-home credentials in this new space. I found myself locked in some strange competition, but embraced it as a way to establish something that we were together and in the end, that's what happened, I suppose: we were two people who couldn't help but burn a roux. It's tough to get just the right mixture of flour and oil, and once you get the blend right you have to be so very mindful of how you cook it lest it burn. We tried a couple of times, but something just wasn't clicking and the roux kept sticking to the bottom of the pot. We laughed about it. I think we had takeout instead.
There was a party with new work colleagues, the people who saw the life he was shaping in this new place. I wondered which of them, if any, would be my friends. There was shopping and walking and dinners and bedtimes. We had Christmas the night before I left. The wrapped box he handed me might as well have been empty since the gift said nothing of love and commitment and devotion. I'd searched antique shops before embarking on my island journey to find the perfect gift, a box with beautiful wood inlay, a place where he could keep his greatest treasures. The matronly department store sweater felt thoughtless in comparison.
I drove back across the bridge, this time during heavy traffic, the clear skies pulling me easily over placid waters. Holidays were ended. It was time to return to work.
I didn't hear from him for six months. By then I'd moved, not to his island, but to my own, a landlocked corner closer to our place of origin. He was married now--well, again--and she was perfect and blonde and not-me. It might have been raining that day, and I don't recall how the coffee was that morning. I sat in that house I was renting and just listened to the drops of rain falling through the trees onto the medium pitch of the shingled roof, counting what I could while his voice wove that ribbon of his new life into an oily slick bow.
I was thirty before I understood why I stopped at that bridge. I could see myself in that car, an empty box wrapped in pretty paper, a gift meant to be filled with whatever was meaningful or important to the receiver. Somehow even on that night I knew that I wasn't giving anyone anything they wanted because I wasn't really giving anything at all. Always hedging my bets; I hadn't even breathed a word of interest in a transfer to my company's office on his island because I was waiting for someone else to make the decision for me, to tell me that the island was ready to accept a new resident. No, scratch that: I was waiting to be told that I was the new resident, waiting to be given a role to play in someone else's life. I offered nothing and expected everything, the emptiest of gestures disguised as something like love and devotion.
Written in response to the Topic 1 prompt at therealljidol: Empty Gestures.