How Many Miles
by David Cotrone
In the east side of the city I stood in a museum with Christine and wondered how she would react when I told her I was done, ready to move on. I wasn’t ready to start something new so much as I was to end something old. Defined by distance, our relationship didn’t allow for anything real, nothing that mattered. I would never know her, not quite. I would never be able to make the distance short, never be able to bridge the gap of our lives apart.
The museum had diaries and journals of famous authors and poets, some musicians, all on display. A lot of them were old, not from this decade, many not from this century. But in them they had written about their work. They had written about traveling, about hunger. Some of them were even in code, a vocabulary only the author could understand, that no one else was meant to read.
“What do you think she’s saying?” Christine asked, pointing to the diary of a woman named Potter. The woman’s writing was a series of symbols. The plaque in front said the key must have been lost, if there was ever a key in the first place. The woman could have made up her language and kept its meaning in her mind, to her self.
“I don’t know,” I said. Really, there was no way to tell.
Later, as we were walking out of the museum, I put my arm around Christine’s shoulder. We were heading back to her apartment near the park when she asked if she talked too much. “Do I talk too much?” she said. She had lived in New York all her life and I came from a sprawling city right outside Washington, a place called Silver Spring. A name so regal for a city so resolute, she announced when we first met, holding up a can of soda, making a toast. She had never been before, had come to visit a mutual friend who set us up for lunch. After that, we decided we would try to visit each other once a month.
“No,” I said. “You don’t. You don’t talk too much.” I didn’t know what else to say. It was the kind of question that should have come a lot earlier, the kind of thing you expect to hear when you see each other for the first time, the second or third, maybe.
But it had been a couple years.
It had been a long time.
I noticed, though, that her voice sounded different. I was used to hearing it over a speaker, over the phone. In person her voice was clearer, brighter, even bouncy. I could hear it. It didn’t gargle like it did when the phone hitched. It was all in plain sight. It was almost a luxury.
(Sometimes, when we were apart, we would go a few days without speaking, each of us too busy or too tired to get on the phone, too sick of the motions. Those days I would imagine her voice, think of the last time I heard it, over a meal or sitting next to her on the subway. I could never remember what she actually said, only that she had a voice in the first place, that she was more than just a memory.)
When I think about it I’m not sure I could say it’s the same each time I hear it, her voice. I thought of recording her talking once, maybe asking her to recite a speech and taping it. It would be ridiculous to ask someone to do such a thing, but I could listen to the tape whenever I got nervous and imagined her at dinner with someone else, a coworker or a friend who had asked if she wanted company. The coworker or friend would have known that she lived alone, that I visited only once in a while, that she might have been sick of it, after all, that she might have wanted something better, someone closer.
It would have been too easy for her to give into that kind of temptation, I thought. Too easy for her to try it out. She could have taken the offer with hopes of seeing how it might feel. She might have found herself excited, the prospect of a new kind of life within reach, the opportunity to have weeks of visible connection — not a reliance on phone calls and recollection — love running a normal course. She might have liked it better, after all, looking across a table and seeing someone who lived nearby, someone she could see whenever she wanted. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she preferred something like that. I would have never blamed her.
Whenever I go to her I take the bus. I have the route memorized; two years in and I’ve never made the drive myself. I’m too afraid of driving, afraid of all the ways you can end up in a wreck: how a car can tip, how the motor can fall through the bottom, how the wheels keep moving even when you hit the breaks.
“Every time you step off the bus it’s like I’m seeing you for the first time,” she said, each time I arrived. “I like it.”
“I know,” I said. “I feel that way, too.” But it wasn’t true. I should have told her the truth: This isn’t how it should work. I should have reminded her about the weeks we spent apart, the distance. This isn’t how anything should work. I had gone to tell her I was done and I knew she wasn’t ready to hear that.
Our second time seeing each other, she gave me a picture, something to remember her by. In the picture she was wearing a backpack and clothes fit for hiking, her sunglasses resting on her forehead. Behind her was the Grand Canyon, and she was pointing to something in the distance, making a show for the camera.
When I was back home in Silver Spring I would look at the picture and think of how it was taken before I even met her. She looked older when we were together, and looks older now, I’m sure. She changed each time I saw her, the kinds of changes you don’t notice if you see the person often enough, but can’t help spotting if there’s been time in between: the sharpening of a chin, the soft bulging of a stomach, the fading quality of hair. But in the picture she was always the same, always so happy, or content. I looked at it and thought about how I wanted to be there with her. Two years together and the only places we had been with each other were the places we lived, Silver Spring and New York.
I noticed that out of all the pictures we had together there were none like the one from before I met her, the one of her at the Canyon. She looked so ready to hold her arms out wide, to take flight. I imagined that if I were there we would be pointing at the distance together, the canyon to our backs, sharing a moment that could be frozen in time, or else forever caught on film.
The last night of my stay came and I told Christine I couldn’t keep going. She asked what I was talking about, what I was saying. I don’t know, I said. I don’t know what I’m saying. She sat up in bed and cupped her face with her hands. She tried not to cry. She didn’t cry often so when she did she meant it.
“It’s okay,” I said, rubbing her back. “It’ll be okay,” moving my hand in circles.
“That’s not helping right now,” she said. She looked at my arm and I stopped rubbing. “There’s no way it could.”
We knew what it was like to miss each other’s birthdays, to celebrate holidays with miles in between. We knew what it was like to wait, to send each other postcards in the mail as if we might be somewhere out in the world, somewhere exotic and remote. “This is New York in winter,” her last postcard said, the front a picture of snow falling on buildings. “This is you and me.” I held it in my hands. It was something to keep.
Lying in her bed, I wanted to put my arm over her stomach, like I always did. She told me not to. She said it would hurt. She lay with her back to me and I looked at her, hoping she would turn around, hoping she would understand.
Mornings, when I sit in my kitchen and sip at a cup of coffee, I look at the map hanging on my wall. I have it there because there had been one in my house when I was a kid, and I had always liked wondering about all the places I could visit if I had the chance. I liked when my mother pointed to a country or continent and asked when we were going. I don’t know, I would sometimes say. You tell me. She would laugh and always say the same thing: Tomorrow. She might have been waiting for the right time, for my father to come back from wherever he had gone, years earlier. Or else she might not have wanted to go at all, was only saying so in order to avoid the truth. We’ll go tomorrow.
Before my father left, we would go to the beach. On the way out my brother and I would sit in the backseat, making a game out of hitting the roof of the car with our heads, using the bumps in the road to our advantage. There it is, our father would say after we hit each bump, egging on the game. He laughed every time the portable grill jostled around in back, joking that the car’s engine was falling apart.
It’s as if the fear of what can happen to a motor runs in the family.
Or maybe it’s fear of the road.
Either way, the map was one of Christine’s favorite things about my apartment. “How many miles between here,” she said one morning, putting her finger over a spot near the ocean, “and here?”
“A lot,” I said, looking at the wall. “Too many.”
Now, I know there are some memories that stick: the first time I held her close, the watch she wore to cover the birthmark on her wrist, the way she knew where she was going even if she had never been there before, even when I got us lost at home in Silver Spring. It’s all right, she would say, looking first at the street signs and then at the architecture of the buildings. We’ll find our way back.
In New York, we kept lying in bed without touching or talking. I could tell Christine was awake by the way she was breathing. She made a noise and told me she was going to get up in the morning to go out for a walk, maybe go to work early. She said I could find my own way back to the bus, that if I got lost I should just keep going. She didn’t want it to mean goodbye but it wasn’t anything else. “I thought I was worth the distance,” she said. “I thought I was worth that much.”
“You’re worth everything,” I said. “I just don’t have everything to give.” I knew then that this would be the last time we spoke. In the morning I heard heavy chains hitting the street, cars moving slowly through construction. I sat up in a bed that wasn’t mine as morning filled the room, sixteen stories above the ground. I hadn’t slept for long, but there’s a point where you get too exhausted to be tired, so empty you might as well be full. I was there for Christine, to tell her it wasn’t working, not anymore.
David Cotrone is from Plymouth, MA. His writing has appeared in Fifty-Two Stories, The Rumpus, PANK, elimae, Thought Catalog, Paper Darts, Necessary Fiction and elsewhere. The Editor of Used Furniture Review and a Web Assistant at The Lit Pub, you can find him at his blog, Scenes in Motion Sickness.