“I’m going to be here, rain or shine.” Her blonde hair fell across her tan face hiding those brown gems and high cheekbones momentarily. I knew she was baiting me; she always did that with a smile. She always knew what my response would be and that’d lead her into something better. She was always putting those stale phrases out there, just to rewrite them a moment after.
I threw mine out, “gunna have to do better than that. Thought you studied English or something.”
The day we met, the campus was covered with a thin fog that picked water droplets on your skin like little goosebumps. It brought on a cold rain, a rain that came and hung around between classes and buildings, soaking through hooded sweatshirts and beating off a rainbow of parkas. Scurrying footfalls through splashing puddles and beating feet against intermittently bare pavement created a symphony of noise on that October day. The crisp air and clean scent of the storm snuffed out any of the lingering smoke penciled from cigarettes under tight pulled hoods.
Classes had been fine throughout the fall, my freshman year at the school. Like all college students, I wore the school colors to a gym packed with hollering frat boys and a mix of echoing horns and percussion instruments; I stayed up too late with too many light beers and skipped a couple classes, but still got good grades. Unlike most college students, I avoided uncomfortable conversations with the opposite sex for those first two months.
The rain drove me under the overhang of the library with the hood pulled up and my glasses fogging. I had a thin Steinbeck volume under the coat to keep it dry. I blew out columns of air, catching my breath next to the library doors. Others collected there, but the yellow raincoat cutting through the mix of people and damp weather caught my eye. She slid under and I could see her hair hadn’t been completely protected from the torrent of rain. She stood next to me, threw back the hood and pushed a few wet strands out of her eyes. They were a startling brown and she smiled through that first cliché, “raining cats and dogs out there.” Her white teeth glittered, a light in that dull grey day.
I noticed a couple books tucked in her raincoat, taking my strategy. “You like books, you should say it better than that.” My mind rang with alerts that I’d said the wrong thing, it was too early to know it was a dry shot at humor.
She gave me a cockeyed look and narrowed her eyes. I remember thinking to myself, why did I say that? But then, she laughed and it was a perfect riff, something that couldn’t be put into words. “I always do that, clichés are fun. Not many people react to one like that though.”
“Well, we both like books.” I pulled out Of Mice and Men from under my jacket. “I bet you can think of something better.” I needed to keep going, that smile made my heart hit quicker than the raindrops on the pavement.
“Well, we know the rain will be good for the fat of the land.” She smiled and nodded at the book. She pushed her hands through her hair again, “let’s just call it the tin roof orchestra.” She was quick and I knew that from the beginning. We met regularly after that for coffee, kind of cliché in its own right, but what English major doesn’t like coffee?
I just looked at her, “rain or shine? You can do better than that.” She was a silhouette against that white backdrop: the room was white, the bed was white, the doctors and nurses wore white, even my hospital gown was white. What I wouldn’t give for a splash of color. Various machines beeped along, monitoring this or that, but her voice was all I wanted to hear, just something with feeling, just something with a rhythm that wasn’t mechanical. The intermittent silence and beeps of the hospital were a prolonged alarm clock, something you want to hit and be done with, something that says come out of that dream.
She just smiled leaning against the hospital bed in the chair they pulled up for her, “what about for better or for worse?” I felt a laugh roll up through my chest and out.
She wore that white dress that hugged her curves perfectly. Her body stood out against the backdrop of the farm and its weathered grey barn boards and tangled apple tree branches, which were stenciled in front of a collage of green forest. The moments with her blonde hair and veil canvasing the breeze passed like an eternity in seconds. We didn’t have her walk to the traditional dah dum da dah, dah dum da dah, but the song wouldn’t have mattered because all I remember was her. She skirted by friends and family seated on hay bales topped with burlap and held her father’s arm as their feet padded down that aisle. Her clean bronze skin contrasting the freshly clipped beard and tinged red cheeks of her father.
His hands passed her soft skin to mine and we looked at each other in front of a hundred eyes, but we were alone. I choked through my vows with my heart in my throat and the mic pressed close to my lips. My heart beat along like the wings of a hummingbird and my arms glistened under the three piece suit. She smiled and blushed through them with the summer sun glinting down into the western sky behind her. I could smell her floral perfume outdoing the wreath of flowers we’d placed along the altar we’d hammered together the previous day.
I remember her starting her vows with the time worn phrases you hear at all weddings, “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.” She started to smile mid way through rattling these off and I knew she was going to lose it waiting for me to cut in.
I whispered loud enough and I was sure others could hear, but I didn’t care, “you can do better than that.” I heard a gasp from a couple rows back, but she just laughed and I knew that was what she was hoping for. Her maid of honor handed her a folded piece of paper and she continued with the rewritten vows, “I promise to allow you to eat the concoctions you create in the kitchen. I promise to share at least one of the blankets with you. I promise not to ruin the books you are slowly thumbing through. I promise that I’ll never get sick of you saying, you can do better than that.” The crowd applauded, now realizing what was going on and getting a whisper of what everyday life was like for us. I remember those vows the most, but I remember her smile through bites of brisket from our potluck dinner and the way she looked longingly at her water bottle when our photos took a little too long, as we stood in front of that spray of color in the western sky that looked down over the rooftops and church steeples of the town below.
The medical jargon didn’t do justice for two English majors. We pride ourselves in stringing words together that go well, not ones that make you pause with uncertainty. We relish words that make you think and feel, not words that send a perplexed look across your face or words handed to you by a doctor in his Tide white coat on a single white sheet of paper. They could cause our world to collapse when normally words could build a world out of nothing. Medical jargon sounds like a sad poem to me and in some ways it is. The lines wouldn’t make your heart sing along with the rhythm or turn on a phrase that was fresh and new; these words stopped hearts and shed tears, pulled hands close and tore them apart. All these things didn’t matter in this moment, with her brown eyes on my blue ones, her tan hands on my pale ones, her blonde locks with my shaved scalp. “Well, what about no matter where the road takes us?” She was just trying to get me going now. I laughed against those beeping monitors, her face beautiful against that canvas of white and her perfume fighting with the smell of copper from the blood drawn earlier.
The open windows batted the air at 50 along that curving back road. It penciled a thin line through reaching maples and towering pines and played stones in pings on the undercarriage of the Equinox. The sun slit bars in alternating light and dark across her face as my eyes jumped from the road to her smile and back. My right hand played the tattered strings on her blue jeans along with the radio. She wore a pair of those oversized glasses and they threw my reflection back at me in a wink before I shifted my gaze back to the thin trail of a road.
“So, where we heading?” I had to reach a bit on the volume to combat the radio and open windows.
“Just driving,” her voice strung together like a melody over the country radio station.
“Good day for it I guess.” I felt my left hand tighten on the wheel a bit as the car rocked against the ruts in the road. Sometimes a drive to nowhere was the best itinerary. It didn’t always have to be feet tiptoeing against hot sand and a spray of salt air; or an eclectic mix of colors, barrage of smells and din of voices in a restaurant; or even the cool feel of a theatre, the salty taste of popcorn and the overzealous volume of the film that was playing. Sometimes a back road and the person you love is enough.
“You know what they say,” I felt her smile, even though I didn’t turn my head this time.
“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” I felt her laugh creeping up. She knew what I was going to say, we both knew it. At this point, I really didn’t need to say it, but we both knew I would anyways.
“You can do better.” I rubbed my hand up and down her sun warmed leg and felt that smile string across my face.
“That one’s stale too, you can do better than that.” I stared at her in that hospital room. I tried not to imagine what she was seeing through her eyes because I don’t see myself that way, I’m just who I always was.
She paused, which was different for her. I saw her lips pursed together and how her bottom one creased, a perfect detail to recall any time she wasn’t here. She passed a squint from one eye to the other and I could tell she was being over the top. She could rewrite this cliché at that moment, but she paused. The pause was different, something I wasn’t used to; the pause was not quite her, but was it because I wasn’t quite me? She smiled at me, “you know, I’m going to need some time to rewrite this one.”
Matt McGuirk teaches and laughs at his puns by day and scribbles somewhat coherent words nightly. He lives with his family in rural New Hampshire. Words in The Daily Drunk Magazine, Goat’s Milk, Idle Ink, Literally Stories, New World Writing, Sleet Magazine and Versification. Twitter handle: @McguirkMatthew and Instagram @mcguirk_matthew.