Then Laurel got a job in Idaho. She called me to tell me the news. She would be leaving in two months. I didn’t take it well. I hung up.
Frantically, she called me over and over, texting me, begging me to answer, to talk it out, to listen to some ideas she had, some kind of compromise. She told me she wouldn’t even take the job if it meant losing me. That it wasn’t worth it, that she’d find something else. Just please text back. I love you, Henry. Please talk to me. You’re breaking my heart.
After an hour of ignored calls, I responded with this:
STOP TEXTING ME. TAKE THE JOB. LEAVE ME ALONE.
Eventually, she did.
It wasn’t lost on me that I was now in the seat of power that Laurel had once occupied during my manic outbursts. It felt good. It felt good to have that leverage. I wanted her to hurt a little. I wanted her to know how it felt to strangle yourself while your partner watched and did nothing.
I knew I wouldn’t stay angry but I tried to. I sat on my bed, stewing in all the worst memories of Laurel I could cultivate, hyper-focusing on her flaws; convincing myself that she wasn’t that great anyway, and hell no I wouldn’t miss her once she left: She’d gained some weight. She always took the aux cord and played her own music while I was driving. She would scream at me when I had panic attacks. She always talked about her exes. I numbed myself to the idea of lasting love, of love in general. It was simply a chemical reaction in the brain as part of our ancient, mammalian instinct to procreate.
Psh. Laurel. Didn’t need her. I shut off.
A few days later, we met up at her request. She wanted to mend things. The idea was we were going to jump in my car and drive somewhere. Just like old times. Like nothing had changed. Everything was fine. I wasn’t going crazy. She wasn’t leaving to another state. Peachy.
When we saw each other, it was like someone had pressed the reset button on us. I didn’t want to touch her. I didn’t want to talk to her. I didn’t want anything to do with her. Laurel was leaving, and I was setting myself up for a fiery crash if I didn’t step out of myself immediately. She got in the car and leaned in to kiss me. I said something like, “Where are we going?” and turned down a random street to pretend that I was too busy to kiss her, and it was simply a matter of safety and not desperate self-preservation. We were off to a great start.
The drive was long and uneventful. I blasted music so I didn’t have to make with the conversation. I felt sick. There must be something wrong with me. Didn’t I love her? Was I kidding myself? Was this intentional? Then why couldn’t I turn it back on?
We drove north until we reached the Bridge of the Gods. Laurel kept it a surprise until we were close. It was somewhere she’d always wanted to visit, but never yet had. I’d never been there either. I had heard about it, but I’d never been there. It was just a bridge. It had a cool name, but it was a bridge. I’d never been interested.
We pulled into an empty lot next to the bridge and parked. It was quiet. The road was empty. Night had fallen. The thick canopy of trees blocked out most of the light from the streetlamps.
Laurel turned to me in the darkness of the car, her face shadowed and blue. We hadn’t spoken more than a few sentences the entire drive. “What the hell is going on?” she asked.
I stared out the windshield and pretended to look for stars. “Nothing is wrong,” I said. “I just don’t feel well.”
Her face scrunched up like she was thinking about something really hard, but she was just angry. I used to love when she made her faces, even her angry ones. Now I just saw the imperfections. I didn’t want it.
“You don’t feel well? Bullshit. This is bullshit. You need to talk to me.”
“I don’t think I can do that right now.”
Laurel glared at the side of my head with the most vicious eyes she could make and waited for me to say something. I looked at her. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t say anything. She jerked up and got out of the car, slammed the door, and speed-walked down the dirt path to the bridge. I sat there in the driver’s seat and stared at myself in the rearview mirror. I looked skinnier. Less bloated. I looked healthier.
Why did it have to be like this — black and white? Either feel everything and burn to death, or feel nothing and freeze? Here was this woman I loved disappearing into the blur of the moonlight, obscured by the shade of an uncertain future, and I sat there in the car, lost. After everything in my life that had led me to this moment — the childhood I’d tried desperately to forget, the years of lonely and bitter alcoholism, the women I’d used and loved and hated — I understood nothing. I was still lost.
I forced myself to step out before Laurel got to the bridge, and followed slowly behind with my hands in my pockets. I knew I was supposed to feel warm or cold or something, but I felt nothing. I felt nothing at all. I wanted it back.
I stepped underneath the big BRIDGE OF THE GODS sign and walked down the middle of it. Just a bridge. I was right. I didn’t get what the big deal was.
Laurel was halfway down it already so I yelled out, “Hey! Wait up! Hang on!” and took off into a jog to catch up with her. She stopped without looking back and then I was there next to her. We stood silently together and I watched the river run underneath us. I tried to think of what river it might be. Then I decided it didn’t matter. I took Laurel’s hand. I decided that was something I should probably do.
“You can still visit me,” she spoke softly. “It’s just like … a four-hour drive. You could visit on the weekends and I could come see you when I’m not working. It can still work.”
I stared out over the river. It moved slowly and hummed like the wind was beneath us. I thought about if this would be one of those moments I’d look back on and appreciate later. I couldn’t decide. Maybe it would make sense later. That was the easy answer. That helped a little.
“If we’d known each other for longer,” Laurel continued, “I’d have asked you to move with me. That’s how important you are to me. I love you … I love you, Henry.”
A train whistle blew off in the distance. It was coming our way. There were train tracks underneath the bridge. I always wanted to hop a train when I was younger. I was 19 when I read On the Road. That was the moment I decided I wanted to be a writer. I was going to drink and smoke and screw and travel the world, and I’d write about it all. I’d be famous. I’d be beautiful. They’d hail me as the greatest writer of my generation. What I became was a drunk that screwed and smoked, and traveled sometimes and forgot to write about it. As the train passed, though, I realized that I wasn’t so far off. That made me happy.
“Henry?” Laurel’s voice brought me back. “Do you still love me?”
“Yes,” I said. It was melting. But I was glad to see it go. I’d rather feel everything than nothing at all — I chose that right then and there. I wanted the flames.
The train was loud and black and shook the bridge as it passed underneath. The train shook the Bridge of the Gods.
“Can you just come back to Earth?”
I waited until the train passed, shrinking into the darkness of the night. The sound of the whistle carried for a few more seconds after it was gone. Sound really carried out there. There was nothing else to hear. It was Laurel and the train.
“You know I’m gonna mess this up, right? We’re gonna hate each other.” I turned towards her and looked her in the eyes when I said it. I wanted her to know.
Laurel reached over and put her hand to my waist. “Why do you always have to talk like that?”
“Otherwise I’ll drown. I can’t keep this up forever.”
“Keep what up?”
“Not destroying a good thing.”
She looked into my eyes as if searching for something. I didn’t know what she was looking for. I don’t think she found it.
“Okay. Can we just enjoy this while it lasts? Can we at least do that? Then you can destroy it. You can destroy it all, Henry.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay,” said Laurel.
Then together we walked back off the bridge.