The night before, Lauren had stayed at Timothy’s apartment despite an agreement they’d reached after a few weeks’ negotiation (with sullenness, with wine, with tears) that “they were on hold,” that they shouldn’t date long distance, that they should reevaluate things later that fall, that they could see other people, if they wanted to. And of course they had spooned which had led to making love not once, but twice—first not long after they were in bed, and second when they had woken up for a three-mile run, which they didn’t end up completing. Both times it had been lovemaking perfumed with the knowledge that they would soon be apart for neither knew how long. Months, for sure. Maybe forever.
“I’m going to be sore tomorrow,” she’d said that morning as she lay on her back and he lay on his side, one bare leg draped across her bare leg, his head against hers.
“It’ll be a nice memory though,” he’d said, stroking her cheek and then running his fingers through her espresso-colored hair.
He was giving up their relationship for the job he wanted—assistant professor of Creative Writing and Literature at East State College, his undergraduate alma mater. There was the year left she had in her MA, a degree she wanted to finish. They’d been through the possibilities, the various angles, but they had yielded to reason instead of emotion. Still. His house in Hamilton, South Dakota, was waiting for him, his parents, brother, sister-in-law and nephew would be there on Saturday afternoon when he arrived. He wouldn’t be alone. Still.
The morning couldn’t have been better for moving—breezy, yes, but not as humid as it might have been late July in the Texas panhandle. By 11:30, the two of them, along with five of their fellow grad students, had almost finished loading the 19-foot U-haul he would drive to his new home. After the pizza and hot wings, everyone except for Lauren had said their goodbyes and offered well-wishes, leaving the two of them in his mostly empty apartment.
“Not much left to do,” he said, thinking back to four years earlier when he had moved to this place, never having been to Texas.
“I’ll say this for you,” Lauren said, “you keep a neat place.” She wore khaki shorts and a clingy aqua tank top that, while modest, reinforced why he found himself so physically attracted to her.
They sat on the living room floor, next to each other, “Sure you don’t want to come along?” He eyed her runner’s legs, legs he would no longer feel against his.
“That’s not the best idea,” she said, nibbling at pizza crust.
He thought it ironic considering that she had spent the night; she probably thought the same thing. The swig of Dr. Pepper from the red plastic cup tasted too sweet. “The reality’s difficult.”
He took stock of the apartment. It was hard to believe so much was done, and that he was getting the job he’d wanted. All these trade-offs. He had already booked a room at a Quality Inn in Salina, Kansas, a good 500 miles away, so he needed to get going—he was towing his Corolla.
“What’s left?” Lauren said, standing up.
He glanced at her. “Clean the bathroom, take out the garbage. A few odds and ends to go onto the truck. You wanna clean, and I’ll pack the rest?”
“As the woman, I’d be happy to clean.” She didn’t turn toward him.
Timothy sighed and rose. “That’s not what I meant. If you want—”
“It’s fine. I’m sorry. Really.” She shook her head and threw the plate and cup in the white plastic bag beside the refrigerator.
“Just do what you need to,” she said, stepping away when he reached out his arm toward her.
In the bedroom, his packed suitcase and messenger bag sat by Lauren’s backpack. He took everything but the backpack, then in the now-empty kitchen, grabbed the small cooler he had already packed. Outside the sun was starting to break through the partial clouds, which was not something he wanted. With the tension that existed between Lauren and him, he wanted gray skies, if possible, rain even, to match the mood.
The U-Haul passenger door groaned open, and he set the suitcase upright on the floor in front of the passenger seat, set the cooler on the seat, the messenger bag beside it.
He stared at the AM/FM radio, wondering how he would manage 900-plus miles to Hamilton with the limited radio station options of the Great Plains. He told himself that he might get some story ideas at the very least, listening to the AM stations.
He looked back at the small, two-level apartment building, the gawking orange door that he had first encountered exactly four years earlier, a time when he knew no one, save his brother Todd who had made the trip to help him move.
* * *
By 12:30 little remained in the apartment: two keys on the Formica counter, Timothy, Lauren, and her backpack—a visual representation of the aloneness he already felt.
“It’s going to be one long and lonely drive,” he said, hands at his hips, not certain what he was trying to accomplish with the statement.
Lauren winced. “Timothy, don’t.”
“I’m not trying to make it worse. I’m just pointing out an obvious fact.” Somehow it seemed worse to be having this parting in an empty room. There was nothing to focus on but her, which caused more difficulty.
“If it’s obvious then why say it?” she asked, eyes set on him.
He wished he could revise his words as he did in his stories. “Sorry,” he said, and stepped closer.
“I just feel sick to my stomach,” she said, crossing her arms.
He hesitated. “If it makes you feel better, I feel sick, too,” he said, though it was just as much from all the pizza he had eaten too quickly. “I should probably get on the road.”
“Yes, you should.” She grabbed her backpack, without touching him, and then walked out the open door.
He followed her.
Outside, the cicadas sounded amplified. Lauren crossed the street to her car and threw in her backpack. She slammed the door, but then took her time to where he stood on the boulevard.
As he watched all this, Timothy felt more awkward and more awful, wondering if he was making the right decision, but she had said he needed to take the job. He knew he needed to take the job. It was the job he wanted, and the only offer he’d received.
She stood on the grass, facing him, within arm’s reach.
“So,” he started. “Thanks for all your help, this week, today, these months.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, hands at her hips, shifting her weight on her legs, as though she were loosening up before running a race, reminding him of their runs together the past months, the 5k and 10k they’d run.
They had agreed to keep the lines of communication open—that was important, they’d also agreed.
“Let me know when you get to your motel,” she said. “And when you get to your new place.”
“Will do,” he said. “Let’s not make this a Minnesota goodbye, though.
She allowed a smirk to show on her otherwise-sullen face.
“No need to stretch this out any longer than it needs to be,” he said. “Just makes it more difficult.”
“You’re right,” she said. And with that she stepped up to him and put her arms around him. She tilted her head up, her lips puckered.
He leaned into her, bending slightly. “What are you doing?”
“Don’t play dumb.”
Their lips met, and held. He ventured his tongue into her mouth, and hers found his. After a few seconds they pulled their mouths apart, but still held each other.
“That’s a kiss to last you all the way to South Dakota,” she said. “Better than some stupid chick-flick moment.”
“Yes, that will last the trip, most definitely.”
“Call me.” They were still holding each other.
“Call you Ishmael?” He chuckled.
She squeezed him, let go. “I will,” he said, disbelieving that they’d only last made love just hours before, something he was wondering about now if that was a good idea or not. But what a memory. As was this kiss.
“Okay, you need to go before I start crying,” she said.
“On my way. Next stop, the metropolis of Salina, Kansas.”
“Drive safely,” she said, and turned to the street.
“I will.” He watched her get into her car and roll down her window. She shooed him away, as though flicking away crumbs.
He climbed up into the U-haul. The engine rumbled. He waved it her, and she returned it, her face strained from holding back tears, he knew.
In the side mirror, he watched her red Civic shrink as it she moved further and further away from where he idled. He knew there was so much that he was transporting, that he would drive the 900 miles with care, and with the occasional glances in the side mirrors to make certain that all he had packed was still along with him, the sight of his Corolla a visual reminder of all that he carried, both concrete and abstract.