Riding our bikes down Woodland Valley Road, you explain what “coupling” means: it’s a therapy term that refers to the associations one makes, and sticks to. Like, you remind me, how one day in eighth grade I stayed home sick and the next day all the girls hated me. Since then, I don’t like to miss things. That’s coupling, you say, one thing with another. And that’s true.
I am quiet for a while. Pedaling my bike. I look at the side of the road as it moves past me, and see all the low, lavender sprouts, grayish green wispy weedy things, lit from within like soft, morning fire. And I see the houses lining our country road, 1930’s summer cottages, dark brown wood, with red trim, that have been converted (sort of) into regular homes, and I can smell the sweet old funk from all the way over here on my bike. And I think of all the sturdy Midwestern apartments I have rented or visited over the years. The railroad layout, dark oak trim, heavy mirrors, cookie-scented closets. Three rectangles like a ladder on every door. Trent’s friend’s Ian’s place in Chicago where we visited during one of Ian’s better stretches, actually getting some stand-up gigs, and not drinking. The three of us stayed up all night for no good reason, smoking our brains out, then went to a diner at 5 am or so. It seems that I have always felt, with Trent’s friends, and now with yours, too, like I am being tolerated. And when I look back, I can see how hard I have always tried, and how that can be annoying.
And Minneapolis, Lansing, so much drinking, so much lusting after so pathetically little, and the houses, plain enough in their thing-ness to actually stand out in relief to all that internal fuss. It’s like I have, my whole life, been trying to touch someone, to feel something good and true, and everlasting, in them, in me, in something very cool we could make together. Instead I have found my best friends in rooms, some singular, like my room with the cream-colored curtains at the arts colony, some rooms upon rooms, with a deck off the back, like the blue house I live in now, tiny but kind, with my family. I love them, too. Of course. But it’s just not the same as it is with things. A human being can only be so loyal. I know a house can burn down, or a roof can cave in, but that’s not the kind of stability I am talking about.
We keep biking along. I ask you, if we un-couple our lives, untangle the mess, what’s left? Is that really such a good idea? Is it even possible? I ask you this, and I can tell you see what I mean. You explain something that makes so much sense that I can’t even remember it. I can feel you trying to reach me, to meet me in wherever it is I am taking this thing, and I am happy about that, especially in retrospect, but it’s tough, I know. I wonder sometimes what it must be like for you. Growing up in house filled with certainty, and every comic you ever read, and more than enough boxy-fitting, thick cotton, souvenir T-shirts—a big, old Dutch Colonial on a corner in a very tony suburb. It’s one house that I just can’t feel. Except for the foyer, sort of, with the pretty blue Polynesian wallpaper and the polished wood floors. And your parents, doctors, always telling everyone what the problem is, and how to fix it. They don’t get you, or us, or it.
So when I was 12 and had to stay with some family-friends because my dad was having his first heart attack of several and my mom was with him, I spent a lot of time soaking things in. This was an interesting family: The mom, Denise, was British. She had a perfect Dorothy Hamill haircut, teeth slanted slightly inward, which I loved, a great smoking style, and an edge, especially in the morning, I discovered. Her kids, Dieter and Natasha, also British, were around my age, especially the boy, who had wonderful blonde, curly hair, and I loved him for it, and his cute accent didn’t hurt. The dad, whose name escapes me, was the stepfather and he was also very attractive, nicely feathered hair, but from Tennessee, and pretty mean. He would smack Dieter’s hand at the dinner table for using his fork in the English way. Poor Dieter: I remember his look of shock and shame, with me there.
Dieter and Natasha had separate rooms, of course, both with single trundle beds and satin sheets! Their parents let us watch TV in their bedroom on their huge bed that I just knew was used for sex, and I used to lie there and wonder what it would be like to be them. Those crazy accents, a second marriage—it all seemed so dirty. In a good way. But dangerous, too.
My room, however, the guest room, was a paragon of prim. Denise and her husband had nailed molding on to the walls in the shape of fancy squares, then wallpapered a tiny flower print into the center of the squares. The twin beds’ headboards and bedspreads matched the pattern inside the molding. And the bathroom was connected to the room, small, but with clean, matching hand towels and a stall shower. It was like my oasis from complexity, that room. And I also loved the bacon sandwiches Mrs. K made in the mornings, on English muffins, with BP steak sauce. I sometimes wonder why I don’t try to replicate that meal, if I loved it so much. There’s love, and then there’s love, I guess. And some things just don’t stand up to the affecting air of reality. And so I protect them, which is a way of loving them, or the things they….represent. Are coupled with.
We keep biking down the road. I see you pedaling a bit ahead of me, and I watch your strong legs, pumping gently. Sometimes it feels like you are making one shape with your body and I am making another. Other times, the shapes collide, or even meet, kiss, collapse into each other, on a Saturday morning, just before our child wakes. Things can feel so desperate. Things can feel. Sometimes I think I am living in a dream and you are awake, on the other side of the bed. That thought makes me woozy.
And then it’s you: body made of flesh, your profile against the sky, the stillness of your beautiful face, illuminating everywhere, gathering every moment into one flash, and keeping me here, on my bike, riding down the hill toward home.
Bethany Saltman lives and writes in the Catskills Mountains of New York with her husband and daughter. Her writing, editing, interviews, and research can be seen in magazines like the New Yorker, Parents, the Sun, New York Quarterly, Witness, to name a few. Her (under construction) website is bethanysaltman.com.