The Montréal Review, February 2011
Distant Hiding by Sean Beavers (
We made camp on the edge of the vineyard, under the gnarled arm of an oak tree. It was cold, and through the moonlight we could see the smoke from the pitch barrels floating across the bare vines and east into the hills. In the distance the worker's quarters were brightly lit and we could hear their whiskey-soaked hollering. We unrolled our bags quickly and set to making the fire. The ground was littered with dried vines discarded during the harvest and the gathering went quickly. Once the fire was lit we unpacked what supplies we had left from Sacramento. We ate quietly; listening to the shouts of the workers and the constant, dull thudding of the ocean beyond. The grapevines hung loosely as they marched in formation out of the sea and into the highlands. The winter cold had stripped them of their fullness and now they were naked and frail. Near midnight, the workers' voices died down and the lights slowly disappeared. We lay in our bags and watched the moon travel slowly across the black night. Neither of us spoke. We had traveled that day from the hills of Angwin. The rides had been slow coming and we spent nearly eight hours traveling the 40 miles to the edge of the ocean. On the side of the road near Sonoma we met a group of Mexicans heading north, to work they had heard about outside of Hayward. They sat on the edge of the highway with us for several hours, drinking water and eating slices of apple cut with well-worn knives. We told them we were heading to the water and they directed us to the edge of the vineyard. They had worked seasonally for the owners and assured us we would be unmolested while we waited. They were right. It was a clean, suitable place and Claire and I were safe for the three days we camped before heading out into the sea.
In Iowa, Claire is waiting for me. We fought that morning before I left for work and now she is pacing the apartment floor, stopping only briefly to pet the cat. The hardwood floor reverberates as she walks, each step like a metronome, counting off the measures of her unease. We live in a one bedroom above an old theatre. It is small and cramped, even for the two of us, but she has made it livable with small pictures of early aviators and with a tastefully eclectic mix of pale greens and whites. The kitchen is separated from the main room by a small island. We have spent many evenings across from each other, drinking wine and talking about our days. The bedroom is attached to the kitchen and is small as well. Barely enough room for our bed and a chest that we managed to sneak out of her parent's house. At night, we lie in our bed and listen to the movie being shown below us. We imagine the screen and hug each other, thinking about the characters dancing and fighting and loving. In the summer, the windows are open and the voices of the people on the street mingle with the muddled movie lines, bringing laughs as the story is rewritten.
Today though, we have fought and Claire is pacing. When I come through the door I put my small bag on the couch and pour a glass of water. She has stopped and is looking at me carefully.
"I'm sorry," I say.
I open my bag and pull out the two-day old spinach I got at work. I start cleaning it and Claire comes next to me. She starts a pot of water for the pasta and begins peeling and chopping the garlic cloves. As I sauté the spinach, the smells mix and it is beautiful, like the Italian restaurant we go to on special occasions. The kitchen is too small for us to avoid each other and soon we are laughing. We are perfect again. Two people who love each other and are cooking dinner like we always have and always will. We are the ideal.
In Chicago, I am waiting in the car. The street is quiet and the only light comes from the porches of the houses lining the block. I am waiting for her to come out and it is taking too long. I listen to the motor idle and watch a housecat cross the street in front of me. It stops midway and turns. Its eyes glow white and it watches me for only a few moments before continuing on to its nightly duties. Claire appears in her doorway and rushes to the car. She is crying and tells me to drive. We head south, out of her subdivision and toward the highway. She turns the radio up loud. She is sobbing and leans against the window while the parks and schools near her home give way to strip malls and super discount stores. Soon, we are on the highway and are heading towards the city.
We had planned this night for weeks. Jon and Elise are having a housewarming for their new condo and we are their closest friends. It wasn't always like this; originally it was only Claire and Elise. They went to high school together on the north shore and Jon and I came later as accessories, like handbags. The first time I met Jon I hated him immediately. Claire had dragged me to a show at the Metro and Jon and Elise were going to meet us there with the tickets. We waited in a park across the street for an hour before they finally showed up and informed us that Jon was tired from finding a parking space and they were going to skip the show. Several weeks later we met again at an uptown Ethiopian restaurant. Over appetizers Jon apologized for the show incident and later footed the bill. Jon and I grew to be friends after that and would often spend Sundays watching football and drinking beer.
Claire and I turn off at the Addison exit and head east towards Wrigleyville. Claire is calmer now and is humming softly to a Wilco song on the radio. Chinese wholesalers and import/export companies line Addison west of the river and their storefronts are dimly lit. Even on a Friday night, groups of middle-aged men gather on the corners, hoping to find work from passing contractors. They are circled together, and the steam from their breath mingles and rises from the center of the group, like the smokestack of a factory on its last legs. The river is ink black, and if you stop and look closely, you can see the small homeless camps scattered randomly along the banks. We pass over without stopping and find a parking spot several blocks away from the condo. Claire is wearing a black wool coat and a red dress I bought her the week before. The dress is twirling around her slender legs as she walks and she looks radiant in the streetlight. I put my arm through hers and we slow our pace.
Jon answers the door with an eggplant in his hands. He rolls his eyes and tells us that we need to take our shoes off. "New carpet," he explains. The condo is wonderful and sterile. It smells like fresh paint and glue mixed with fabric softener. There are several dozen socked people drinking wine and milling about. Some of them are friends of Claire and me, but most are strangers. Jon gives the eggplant to Elise and takes our coats. We follow him to the bedroom and he gives us a tour. The condo is a two story. The first floor has a large central area, and every room connects to it. The kitchen is bright and warm with cherry cabinets and dark green granite countertops. The appliances are stainless steel and the stove looks like it was borrowed from a gourmet restaurant. The living room is carpeted in pale brown, and black leather couches surround a large television mounted on the wall. Upstairs, there are three large bedrooms decorated in muted tones. Jon shows us each with pride. They are all tastefully decorated and as perfect as a magazine shoot.
Claire and I eat appetizers and mingle. We are working the room. Everyone loves talking with Claire. She is funny and charming and approachable. Often I stand back and watch her. She knows just when to laugh and just when to listen. She knows the value of a soft hand on the arm and she knows when to move on. The night goes beautifully. We make several new friends and enjoy the company of old ones. At one, we retrieve our coats from the bedroom and say our goodbyes. We congratulate Jon and Elise on their new condo and make plans to go to dinner the next week at the new Thai restaurant in the neighborhood. When we leave we walk slowly back to the car, arm in arm again.
On the highway I am driving the speed limit in the right lane. We are listening to a jazz CD and watching the orange lights of the highway pass by. Claire has her head on my shoulder.
"How bad was it tonight?" I ask.
She is silent for a moment before she answers.
"As bad as it's ever been"
"Do I need to drop you off around the block?"
"I think so."
I am at the University of Chicago and living in a converted studio off 53 rd and Blackstone. In the mornings, I walk the fours blocks south to eat breakfast at Medici, a local's restaurant on the edge of campus. During my walk, I pass the imposing mansions of Chicago's turn-of-the-century rich. The ancient stained glass and turrets of the mansions act as a tide wall, keeping the slums of the west from encroaching into Hyde Park. The walk is pleasant. I pass the homes and marvel at the intricacy of their construction. Every element has been planned and executed by hand. Cornices are elaborately carved with gryphons and hawks, every pillar is honed from individual slabs of limestone that have been ferried down the lake from Michigan and carted up the Midway Plaisance by horse. The lots are large and allow room in the back for carriage houses. The carriage houses have been converted to grad student apartments by owners who consider it a badge of social honor to support the education of those poorer than themselves. I am not one of those students. I am a junior and I am faltering.
In Medici it is clean and bright. I read the Times and drink good coffee with my eggs. I discuss the news with the hostess. Her name is Claire and she is beautiful. Claire works from 6 till 11 and then heads to classes. She is finishing a degree in neurophysiology and next year she will be attending medical school here at University of Chicago. Most mornings we make small talk, disposable words about classes and rent. Today however, I am telling her that I am leaving the University.
"Why?" she says.
"It's just not working out for me, you know?"
"Are you leaving town?"
"I don't know yet. My lease doesn't end for three months, so I figured I might just work for awhile."
We go on our first date that night. I take her to the Hawaiian Village, a bar under the el tracks on 47 th street. It is a dark place decorated only with Christmas lights strung between the booths and imitation tiki torches placed randomly throughout the space. We drink rum and laugh. She doesn't try to talk me out of quitting, she only asks about my future plans. I tell her I might take some time off and concentrate on freelancing. I have been working several months as a stringer for the News Sun in Waukegan and I figure I might be able to get some more stories out of them. She encourages me and asks about the specifics of being a stringer. I try to explain it as plainly as possible - about the late nights on deadline trying to make something interesting out of a routine town council meeting, about the afternoon meetings with local police departments who only give you the arrests that make them look competent, and about the nights spent at casino fundraisers for local school districts, trying to coax quotes out of drunken parents. She listens intently to it all. Later, after the bartender has yelled last call, we walk slowly back to her apartment and end up in a drunken tangle in her bed.
In the morning there is no awkwardness. It has always been this way. We just weren't willing to admit it. We head to the shop down the street from her apartment and pick up supplies for breakfast. We try to make frittatas but end up failing miserably. The kitchen is filled with smoke and the sulphuric odor of burnt eggs. We give up and head to a diner. Inside, we take a booth and are surrounded by hung over college students. Those who know us our confused by are closeness. We eat a comfortable breakfast and discuss what we will do with the rest of our day.
I am sitting silently at the table while Claire argues with her mother. Her entire family is there, her mother and father of course, her younger sister Mischa and her grandparents who speak no English but are able to express unease in other ways. Her Bobeshi has prepared a feast. The table is full with serving plates and there is little room to maneuver. Only Mischa and I are eating. Our heads are down and we are slowly spooning potato-leek soup into our mouths. I have met Mischa before. She is a senior in high school and has fantastic taste in music; electro-jazz and Swedish pop mostly. She is tall, like her sister, but gangly. One day she will be a beautiful woman, but for now she has just enough awkwardness to make her approachable. Mischa was the one who explained to me how terrible this dinner would be. Claire and I took her to a show the week before and when she heard that I would be meeting the family, she laughed.
Claire and I moved in together in the spring. We took a beautiful three-room apartment on the edge of the Midway. Our large bedroom windows face east and every morning we wake watching the sun rise from the blue-green waters of Lake Michigan. From our tiny living room, we watch the trees bloom and the annuals rise from between the walking paths. Claire has graduated and decided not to go to medical school. She is leery of the clinical practice of medicine and instead is going to take some time off and weigh her options. We are happy, working and living in our apartment.
Claire has been reluctant to explain to her parents our arrangement. Her father is a mathematician with the Department of Defense and her mother is a linguistics professor at Northwestern University. They are first generation Americans. They moved to Chicago from Poland in the sixties, and once established they used their savings to buy a brownstone on the northwest side of the city. Her mother brought her parents over from the old country in the eighties and set them up in an apartment on the first floor. Her father's parents had both been killed at Buchenwald. Eventually, Claire's parents left the city and moved to the north shore. Her grandparents stayed in the brownstone.
We are in the living room of her grandparent's apartment, eating a Sunday meal. It is the first time I have met the family. Claire is fighting with her parents and grandparents. They are yelling in Polish at each other. Her father turns to glare at me and barks something in the language I do not speak. Mischa attempts to join the conversation at various points, but it is obvious even to someone who does not speak the language that she is not welcome. Her mother periodically jabs her finger at my chest and her grandmother is sobbing softly. I sit silently and spoon the wonderfully tart soup.
Claire pushes back from the table and motions that we're leaving. Her father jumps up and flips a tray of potato pierogies onto the floor. Her grandmother yelps in Polish and rushes to the kitchen. Mischa is yelling at her father and no one cares now. Claire's grandmother comes back from the kitchen with several white rags and gets on her hands and knees to start cleaning up the spilled pierogies. Claire's father steps back to stop Claire from leaving and trips backwards over the grandmother. He is on his back, screaming, and Claire steps over him. She grabs her coat, tugs at my arm, and we leave the house.
We are sitting on the couch, watching a show about grizzly bears when her father knocks. He is shaking. Claire lets him in and walks over to turn the TV down. Her father paces the apartment and rubs his hands together. He is wearing an untucked, white dress shirt and it has small, transparent oil stains on it. He smells vaguely of sardines. I am on the couch, watching the old man walk back and forth between the kitchen and living room. Claire stands on the bright blue throw rug we bought at the flea market and waits for him to talk. He sits on the sea chest in the corner of the room and points his finger at me.
"He's ruining your life."
Claire sits next to me on the couch and crosses her legs. She is tapping her hand on her knee and her lip is trembling. He wrings his hands and leans forward.
"You need to go back to school," he says. "You need to be a doctor, like you've always wanted."
Claire is quiet. She puts her hand gently on my leg.
"You choose," he whispers.
A man from Ames answered our ad for the car. He is here, on the street outside our apartment above the theater, circling the old Honda. He stops periodically to open a door or kick a tire. He is looking to buy a car for his daughter, who is heading off to college. He sits in the driver's seat and rubs the gearshift. I give him the keys and he starts the engine. He tries the windshield wipers and the radio. He turns on the lights and heads to the front of the car to make sure they are both functioning. He gets back in and looks in the glove box. I am standing on the side of the car, with one hand on the open driver's door.
"Why'd ya say you're selling it again?" he asks.
"Don't need it. We're moving on."
"Hmmph. How many miles it got on it?"
"Just what the odometer says. 90,000."
"And how much you want for it again?"
"I'll give ya fifteen hundred."
We sold most of the furniture earlier in the week. The car was the last hold-out. I walk up the stairs to the apartment and tell Claire the good news. She is packing up books and dishes. "It's gone," I say. She smiles and nods. She's wearing a pair of trainers, old jeans and a green sweater. Her hair is pulled back loosely and acorn strands fall down across her perfectly sculpted cheeks. She looks like she was made to be in this apartment, with the pale green walls and matinee music filtering up through the floorboards. I help her wrap the dishes in tissue before they go into the boxes. She stops and rubs my back with her hand. Tomorrow we will take the books and the dishes to the Goodwill and we'll give them the fifteen hundred from the car and the two hundred we got for the bed and chest.
On the fourth day we broke camp and headed towards the water. The beach was rocky, and we set out walking north. It was low tide, and in the small pools, hermit crabs disappeared in puffs of silt as we passed. Seagulls dived around us and feasted on the small fish and invertebrates left behind by the receding sea. The air smelled fresh and clean, and the wind blew softly in from the water. To our right were the small earthen cliffs that act as blockades during high tide. Bulging out of the cliffs were the root balls of the trees above. These same trees would soon be claimed by the sea and regurgitated as driftwood.
The sun was high by the time we found our first inlet. We followed the shoreline and searched for a dock. It was wild, untouched land and there was nothing available to meet our needs. We circled the shore of the small ingress and followed it back to the ocean. At the beach, we sat on a large log to eat the small bits of orange we had left in our pack and to drink the last of our water.
At mid-afternoon we found a closed summerhouse, high up the hill away from the ocean. The beach curved inland below the house and provided for a protected bay. An old boathouse sat on stilts in the elbow of the water. Inside the boathouse were an old wooden canoe, a kayak and an aluminum rowboat. We took the rowboat and muscled it down the rails into the water. I sat in the middle of the boat facing backwards and Claire sat in the back facing me. I began to row, and soon we were out in the open ocean. The sun was falling as we passed the breakers and into the smooth current of the deep water. The ocean was turquoise blue and seabirds circled above us. The land surrendered behind us and soon we were alone in the water.
"I love you," Claire said.
"I love you."
We threw our pack overboard and it was just the two of us. We watched the sun dip into the sea. Streaks of orange appeared and glistened on the horizon. It was if golden pearls had been taken by an imaginary hand and thrown across the ocean's surface. They danced and reflected flashes of the waning light. The colors changed softly, moving across the palette with rhythmic abandon. There was no sound. Even the birds had left us.
We sat quietly and marveled at the deep teal of twilight, knowing that even the sea wasn't large enough to hide us.
Peter Lucas is the editor of Prime Mincer literary magazine and a graduate student in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University. His work has appeared in The Owen Wister Review, amongst others.