The hardest times in any relationship are the moments of have and have not. Not bills. No bills are something every couple faces. I mean those moments when one of you has nothing to put in the pot. Those are the hardest moments because they throw up shame, guilt, anger and a hundred and one little niggles. We were, are in fact, no different. There are days when the work isn’t coming in for one of us, a book didn’t sell, and my everyday work was seasonal. Zah had the same issues. When both of us were in the same boat it was easy somehow. Most of the time, sometimes. We made a cup of coffee and went and worked in the garden. But I know for Zah in his quiet periods he became very low because in mine I did the same.
We were both independent, perhaps too independent and didn’t like asking the other if we needed something. So a hole in the sole of my shoe was hidden until an angry Zah came charging out of the bedroom and proceeded to fling the thing halfway across the garden. He knelt down, lifting my foot and examining it. The blister was traced by a finger and examined. It was a large one about the size of an egg. No more words just a kiss and he bathed it. The next morning when I woke up there was a pair of cheap but serviceable trainers on the pillow with a note that said “Use them please.” I did and the next time a check came through I was marched down to the shoe store for a better pair of boots.
It worked both ways. It was hard for him when he had to come home with a tear in his jeans or a hole in his socks. He’d put them down quietly by my chair and I’d reach for the needle and thread. Too old became garden clothes or workshop clothes, but over time I became very good at invisible, well practically invisible mending. I came to love some of those holes though. There was one pair of jeans where with a little diversion of the owner a finger could be slide in and a smiling kiss received. It was hard though, and can still be, to admit when we have a need.
There were Christmases when we had enough to feed visiting family but no extra for gifts, birthdays where the thing desired was just too expensive for the moment. Sometimes it was just an immediate want like a shirt in a shop window or a new computer because the old one was definitely too slow and full. The wants we knew and we talked about them openly together. In the beginning it was ok, but in time it felt like the wants were piling up higher and higher and the opportunities never increased to fill them.
There was a period when we both felt the other one thought we were greedy and was sick of hearing what we wanted. Blame and guilt started creeping in. Not towards the other but to ourselves. I know for myself I would lie awake at night and feel rotten. We had the house, we had the garden for food, but we didn’t have the nice things which we , that Zah, deserved. He wanted a new truck, a new TV, he wanted a better computer and a desk that didn’t wobble, he wanted things that at that moment I just couldn’t give him and I blamed myself for that. I felt judged every time his sisters and brothers came to visit. In a month I had turned myself into an emotional wreck and began to get snappy every time we talked. The man I loved, I had committed to and who had chosen me, and I couldn’t give him the things he wanted. Where we lived meant there was very little work available. Had we been back in New York, no problem. But here by our ocean I had so few options, I was depressed and scared. To make it worse it felt like Zah was withdrawing too. From me, from the garden, from everything. His job had finished and for two months he hadn’t found a replacement one. Autumn was closing in and he would walk for hours on the beach, come home, eat, and not say a word before going to bed. When I climbed in beside him he would turn away and I would have to lay my hand on his hip kissing his neck goodnight.
One morning he was gone. The bed felt cold so he must have left before dawn. His phone was on the table and his wallet too. No coffee made, none of his early morning rituals performed. The toothbrush was dry, the hairbrush unmoved, no hint of deodorant in the bathroom, it was as if he had never been there. Checking his wardrobe his clothes were still there, the truck was parked, but even in the garden nothing had been done. The chickens and ducks were still locked up from the night before. The outdoor bath was dry and empty. It was as though I was walking through my life as an onlooker with the main character vanished. So I did what was needful. I made a pot of coffee, I let out the birds and fed them. The dogs were fed and the cat too. It seemed like a hundred and one little things, needful things, were done while I tried to avoid the thoughts that were crowding in like storm clouds. I had been left. He had gone and done something dreadful to himself. Little needlelike thoughts jabbing as the ducks quacked for their breakfast, as the percolator spat out coffee on the stove and had to be cleaned up, as the cat scratched me while I tried to take out a matted section hair. I withdrew into mundane work to stop the thoughts and when they were done I could scream. And I did. Loud, guttural, like an wounded animal I screamed out my pain and fear with tears flowing down my face. I had failed him.
By the time I stopped dawn was long past. The coffee had reduced to a syrup in the bottom of the pot so I threw water in to thin it. I was about to pour myself a cup when I realized there was no point. The question, the most important question in my life, was still unanswered. The man I loved and cherished was not there and I felt and saw the hole where he should be sucking at my spirit. Grabbing my boots I them on without socks and sped out of the door to search the property. First the workshops, then the shed. No sign of them being used in days. We had let the garden slip in our sadness. The greenhouse was empty and the compost areas too. He wasn’t among the beans poles which hung with sad, dessicated pods or in the secret garden we made for when we needed to escape from visitors. That was the hardest to see. The roses and the perennials all stood yellowing from lack of attention with no fresh bloom showing. Instead a thousand brown and withered flowers hung limply there in the place where we loved and made love. The tears came back but I pressed on.
The woods were more difficult. Vast and dark. I knew from his wardrobe he had on old jeans and a red shirt but I saw no flash of red in amongst the trees. The beach was similarly clear. The tide was just turning to go out so at least that meant I would have, should have, might have seen red in the water. No. There was nothing. No sign of him anywhere. There were two places left before I had to accept that I needed to speak to his family. If they would speak to me.
Zah and I had agreed that we should both have a private place on the bluff looking down to the ocean. It was to be a sacred place that was ours and we both had agreed that we would never under any circumstances go into the other’s. Mine was far to the left. From the outside it looks like a pile of rocks with honeysuckle growing wildly over it. In fact it’s just a semicircular wall that acts as a wind break. On the other side of the beach was Zah’s. He chose wood for his. Lengths of cedar because he loved the smell and because for him wood spoke. He made a roof and layered it with mosses. From the side and at a respectable distance it looked like a part of the landscape and I had never in all our years together seen inside.
They were the place we went to beat our chest and speak our pain to the ourselves. They were the place we went when we needed to think or dream or plan. They were sacred and we had both respected the other’s private place for so long I almost forgot that his was there. The most intimate place of my lover’s being was sacred to me and I was never curious about it. But today I had to break that vow. He wasn’t there. My heart sank. There in his space there was a little circle of stones with the remains of yesterday’s dead fire inside. I noticed little things as my mind slowly closed down. The sand was swept, on the cliff below there were apple and pear trees growing where he had thrown cores, there was the cedar smell and that brought a flood of tears too. His smell.
Leaving I looked at my own space across the beach. Half dreaming I thought I saw a wisp of smoke coming from it then nothing but it was worth the checking. Perhaps he had been there, maybe, hopefully, perhaps. I walked. I remember very clearly feeling the waterlogged sand sucking at my feet as I trudged across that vast expanse. A wave washed up my legs and filled my boots so I kicked them off and threw them up the beach. I could collect them later and they felt like the tiniest, least important thing in my life. Just boots. Simple, ugly, worn out boots. Just like me.
The water felt like ice and the fabric clung to my legs leaving me feeling pain which felt good. It was what I deserved for driving him away, for being a whiny little bitch about the slowness of the computer and the fact that I wanted to get spices that needed to be brought in a city. I deserved to burn with the cold and freezing be washed out to sea for what I had become. So my walk became a crawl. Anything to punish myself for the pain I had caused. By the time I got to the other side I could barely move but I didn’t care any more. I had lost man who meant everything to me and he hated me.
Yet there he was. Sitting cross legged leaning against the back wall with a tear stained face and a small fire barely glowing. I stood looking at him and he looked at me with those deep brown eyes. He raised a hand. There was no smile just utter seriousness in his face. “I think you should go back to England or New York” was all he said.
I don’t know how long I stood there. All I know is I stood there frozen and feeling as though I had been body slammed by a moose. Barely breathing I couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, there was nothing except the calls of the seagulls and the crashing of waves combining with the pounding of my own heartbeat in my head. “If that’s what you want” was all I could say. A thousand bitter words, a thousand angry thoughts, all crammed into my head and all I could do was acquiesce quietly.
“Of course I don’t. You think I want you to go? But it’s for the best. I can’t give you anything you need. Better you go back where you can get a nice job, have a nice life, and not waste it on someone like me.”
There was a long silence as we looked at each other. Zah huddled at the back and me standing shivering at the entrance.
“Promise me. Promise me that the only thing you will ever promise is that you’ll wait here for ten minutes.”
“Where else would I go? This is all I have left of you.”
“Now build that fire you must be freezing and wait for me.”
“Sure.” With that he looked back down and began to cry again.
Oh, how I ran without thought or hope back to the house. My feet were cut on sticks, brambles, and rocks but I didn’t care. I tripped over a chicken spilling forward and grazing my hands and arms badly. My shirt tore and yet I didn’t care. The coffee was grabbed, a loaf from the cupboard and then I flew back to my sacred space willing him to have kept the only promise I ever asked of him. I saw him walking back with an arm full of sticks and slowed down. I gave time for him to add more wood and find his spot to sit.
I offered coffee first. Standing with blood pouring down my arms and out of my feet I offered coffee. No words yet just the offer of sustenance before words would have to break or make the moment. He sat staring at my feet. Wouldn’t look up as the coffee was offered but took it and drank slowly. The fire crackled and I sat in the entrance to what had been my sanctuary. I looked at him. Saw the man who I loved as if for the first time. The lines on his face, the silver in his dark hair, his shirt missing two buttons, and, oh god, the sole of his boot had a hole. He hadn’t shaved in days. He like me was a mess but all I felt was pure, unbroken love. I rolled a cigarette from the tobacco dust left in my pouch and we shared it silently. Coffee was drunk and mugs were refilled. All the time he cried and I cried and he wouldn’t look up.
“Don’t make this harder,” he bellowed finally “just go, eh. I can’t be what you need or what you want. Just get out.” The mug was flung at me and disappeared into the sand somewhere.
“What do you think I want Zah?”
“What the fuck do you mean?” He demanded. “You want a home with nice things, comforts, boots that don’t leak and fucking fancy meals. You want to see a movie when you want and have friends who know stuff. You want to have smart fucking conversations and talk about books. What the fuck did you come here for? You knew this wasn’t New York and I will never be able to give you that so piss off and go somewhere you can be happy. Leave me alone.” He spoke fast, the sentences like gunshots, each one hitting its mark and making me feel totally ashamed. Turning his head he sat huddled against the wall but his eyes stayed on my feet.
“Why do you think I came?”
He grunted “because you wanted a fucking adventure, you wanted to play at being native and now it’s not fun any more. Just go, eh. Just get the fuck out and leave me to my world. Go back and stop play acting. The fun’s over and you can go be civilized again.”
I could have hit him for that one.
“Zah. When I came, I came for you. I came because I fell in love with a man not an adventure. Here was me thinking I was fucking up and not giving you everything you wanted and it turns out you think I’m fucking playing at this? You think I like seeing you go out to interviews with a shirt I know has a tear? You think I want you with a hole in your boot or a belly that only has pasta sauce and bread in it? You think I want to fucking see you sitting here? Hear you tell me this is a fucking playdate and that you want to call it off? This is what I fucking wanted! Not the house, not the truck, not the fucking chickens, just you! You, anywhere, anyhow, no fucking bed too hard or day too long. It’s me who’s fucked up. I failed you. I’ll never have another successful book and I have nothing to offer but me, and I’m just not fucking good enough.”
I burst into tears at that point and just gave up all hope of solving the mess.
“I’ll leave tomorrow Zah. You need someone who can give you what you need. Find someone richer who can play at this and still have enough in the bank for groceries. You deserve better than me.”
With that I got up and walked away to the edge of the water and fell completely apart. Tears mixed with sea spray, sand ground into my wounds. I beat the sand and wanted to die. Just close my eyes and feel nothing, be nothing, just stop existing. A wave crashed over my head and filled my lungs with water. I didn’t care. Let the man see me for what I was. A waste of the years he had given me.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and then I was lifted up and carried to the fire and laid down by it. I was inconsolable but felt salt water stinging my wounds as my feet and arms were washed free from the clinging grit. Lying there I felt my head lifted and placed on a lap and my hair being stroked. Then song. Low and with a broken voice a song. The words were tinged with sadness and as I lay with my eyes closed willing the moment never to end I felt drops of water splash my face. Silence came when the song ended. For hours I lay there with him stroking my hair.
“We fucked up big time, eh?”
Eyes still closed I managed to just get out the word “yes” from my dry throat.
“You want this?”
“Of course. Not this just you. I thought you were angry with me.”
“You? No, never. Well maybe a little when you don’t want to get sexy.”
“I thought you left me. What the fuck happened?”
He drew a deep breath then let it out.
“We stopped talking I think. I thought you wanted one thing, you thought I wanted another. We both made up stories in our heads where we were the villain and ended up here.” His voice cracked as the words trailed into silence.
“When I came you didn’t have a job right? I knew what I had to do and I tried my hardest. But look at us. It’s never been enough. Two people scratching a living and finding the end of the month too quickly. You need someone who can do better for you Zah.”
“What if I don’t want better? What if I found the best?”
“You didn’t. Let’s face it Zah you could have anyone and you stuck yourself with me.”
“‘Cause I wanted to. You know things I don’t, you see things I don’t, you love me for me. I thought I was a waster till I met you. Just another bum destined to live on the rez and be nothing. In the dark I saw that falling into being. Work ain’t coming anytime soon. So what do we do? Go back home. I know you weren’t play acting but go back where you can have a life.”
“You are my life Zah.”
“I’m just a chain that’s all.”
“When I lived in New York do you think I was happy?”
“Sure, why not? You had food and a home didn’t you. Hell you had Times Square and people.”
“And I was the loneliest man on the planet. Sure there were people, fuck a deli at two in the morning is useful, but I was alone. I had no one I connected with. Everyone was out for themselves and everyone would squash you to get what you had. I didn’t have friends I had people I didn’t trust because I knew if they saw a way to use me to get what they wanted they would. With you? Well with you I felt treasured. I felt I was accepted just for me and it didn’t matter if I made a hundred in a week or a thousand. I felt like I was good enough.”
Zah said nothing and it was my turn to sit up and stroke his hair.
“Zah. I came because of you. Nothing else. Just you. Only you.”
“Well you and your belly button.”
That raised a self conscious laugh.
“Look. I have no wants. I have you. We have a place that we can live. We have food even if it is sauce and bread and if we run out of that I know where the berries are. We have this place and if you are a bum on the rez then I’ll be one too. Fuck what people think.”
And so we learned. Slowly we grew into a vocabulary where there was no doubt between us. When we were in town and saw something we liked but couldn’t afford we would use the words “that’s nice”. That way we knew there was an attraction but both knew not to feel bad for not providing. That’s not to say that during better times a thing wouldn’t find it’s way onto a pillow or desk. In leaner times we became good at manufacturing, restoring, and copying as best we could. We would make what we couldn’t afford. Trees became wood for desks, chairs, tables, and anything else we needed. We managed and were grateful. We thrived because we learned to speak to each other in ways that left no room to doubt that first and always we both chose to be there and only for each other.
Times did get better slowly. Zah found a job which stuck, rising through the ranks. My scribblings became more popular and slowly the money from that grew too. But we both remembered that day quietly in our hearts and I would wake some nights to find Zah kissing the scars from it left etched on my arms. That always led to a sleepless night of reminding each other why we stayed.