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“OCTOBER,” the bold letters of the calendar announced. Unmoving, unfeeling, they stared blankly back at her with no notion of what they represented. The smooth, shiny paper hung perfectly still on the wall, in direct contrast to what it exacerbated in her.
She looked to the date circled in blue. For weeks she’d been watching it, watching with an ache that spread as the number of squares between the current day and that blue circle became fewer and fewer. Today there were no squares left. It was down to a matter of hours.
“I was just thinking about the time when I was ten. And my cat died. He got run over.” She spoke tonelessly, staring at the far off horizon below the hazy sky. The sun and clouds had reached a standoff, medium orange rays giving way to creeping gray that in turn withdrew again.
He looked over at her. “What made you think of that?”
She shrugged, not breaking her gaze. “I have no idea. I just did.”
He turned back to face the horizon with her. The water in front of them, not more than twenty yards away, reflected the orange rays and bleary gray mass of clouds. A crow cried from what sounded like far off, although he spotted it swooping toward the top of the tall pine tree not far from the small body of water.
She started to speak again, in the same monotonous voice, but quieter this time. “Why is so much of life about pain?”
She turned her head down, and he watched the shiny auburn hair fall and block his view of her face. He wanted to grab it and pull her mouth to his. He resisted. Her question was obviously rhetorical, but he wondered how to respond anyway.
But right then he didn’t know either. It had only been one year. One year that he’d known her, and while in some ways it seemed like a long time, in another he couldn’t believe he had come to feel like this in such a short time.
It was more than heat. More than how much he loved to be inside her, and more than how she attacked him like the wind that ripped through the trees around them, and more than how he felt like he never wanted to stop fucking her. If he was honest, he knew it was more than that from the beginning. There was never a pretense that it was “only physical” between them.
But he was also sure that neither of them had foreseen what it would grow into. And he had never considered what might happen at the end.
Now he didn’t have a choice.
His eyes roved around the land surrounding them. Autumn’s richly colored leaves spotted the ground, not yet abundant enough to cover the dull green grass. A haze still hung in the air, though the sun had broken through the clouds for the last several moments. A dense throng of trees surrounded them and a few similar clusters dotted the nearby plain, but mostly the land expanded openly all the way to the base of the mountains, where the landscape turned upward like the abrupt ascent of a roller coaster.
Her voice resumed once more. “He was such a good cat-first one I ever had.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, realizing he should have said that when she first mentioned it.
“Not your fault,” she answered faintly.
A chilly breeze flew past. He felt a brief shiver as he took a deep breath and stood up. The mountains seemed closer to the sky than to them. He remembered when he had first moved to Oregon ten years ago and how he’d seen the mountains from a distance. He’d originally thought they were low, still clouds, having never been around mountains before.
He kicked through the sparse leaves toward the pond. Gazing down at the less than healthy-looking grass, he stopped and crushed his hands hard into his jeans pockets. He needed some physical pressure to ground him.
He didn’t want her to go. Thinking about her leaving made breathing difficult. Yet here they were. In a matter of minutes he would take her back to her car, and she would go back home to her husband and children and they would start the drive across the country. She was leaving, and there wasn’t anything he could do about it.
A squirrel skittered through the dry leaves several yards in front of him and leapt onto the trunk of a pine tree. It rushed up into the branches and out of sight. He breathed in the scent of pine. He’d known the smell for years, but now it could make him think only of her. He wondered if it always would.
He thought about all the times in the past year that they’d been in these woods together, sitting on the bench where she sat now. He thought of how many times he had been inside of her, both of them mostly still clothed in the chilly fall air, her panties pushed out of the way beneath her wool skirt, stockings still in place, his cock freed from his jeans. Or sweating in the mild summer heat, driving into her from behind as she leaned over and clung to the back of the bench, her cutoffs around her ankles. He felt himself start to get hard thinking about it.
It wasn’t as though he hadn’t known there was a chance of her leaving. In fact, she’d mentioned it when they’d first met, back when he’d had no idea it would ever matter to him. Her husband was being considered for a position in Miami, one that would mean a substantial promotion that he wouldn’t turn down. She had told him that she had no intention of leaving her husband. Her children wouldn’t understand-they weren’t old enough to deal with that kind of thing. She was very committed to her children, even if that meant doing whatever she needed to do to keep her family physically together. He had always admired that about her.
Right now he hated it.
He reached down and picked up the gray pebble he’d nudged with the toe of his boot and threw it into the water. It landed with a hollow splash and disappeared. After today, she wasn’t going to come back to the park anymore. It would no longer be their main meeting place. And though he had spent much of the last ten years of his life in it, he didn’t know if he could ever come back. There was no escaping that it was permanently changed. As was he.
The leaves crackled under his feet as he turned to look at her. Her head was still down, her cheek now resting on the stiff dark denim of one knee as she hugged it close to her body. She wouldn’t divorce her husband. But he wondered now if she wanted to, if she wanted them to be together. That had never really come up. Hadn’t things changed for her? Wasn’t this hurting her too? His chest tightened, and he took a deep breath. He didn’t know how, after so much time, he could still not know what she was feeling. Sometimes he wondered if she knew herself.
It occurred to her as she sat there that she’d been bracing herself for a long time against the pain she’d assumed would come. It was a common method of hers. She anticipated the worst, and she prepared herself for it. Sometimes the worst didn’t come. Usually the worst didn’t come. And sometimes, bad things came that she didn’t even think to foresee, when she didn’t have the chance to brace herself. It hadn’t occurred to her that spring morning nineteen years ago that her father would leave for work and find her beloved cat on the side of the road near their house. No bracing there. Just searing pain.
She focused on a misshaped pinecone near the edge of the water. She didn’t want to leave. Other options weren’t viable, and she hadn’t been opposed last year when her husband had suggested the possibility of moving to Miami. But that was before. The thought now of moving away filled her with dread and longing.
She wondered if he knew it was almost all because of him. She hadn’t told him. Letting him know she was hurting would just make things hurt more. She didn’t see the point of focusing on it.
And there was no way she could stay here with him. She swallowed. She hadn’t mentioned that she had thought about it, of course. That the idea of initiating divorce proceedings was a possibility. But she didn’t know how to even begin doing such a thing. The idea was so far outside familiar territory the she felt terrified and utterly alone even thinking about it.
Besides, her story was solid and clear. She had told him from the beginning that she wouldn’t. It was understood. So bringing it up would just invite vulnerability and uncertainty and make things messy.
The royal blue of his windbreaker filled her peripheral vision. She raised her head to look at him. He was facing away from her, toward the pine trees to her left. As she watched, a squirrel tore across the ground and bounded up into one of them. She stared at the windbreaker’s shiny blue fabric and thought about never again seeing it draped across the back of the gray leather chair in her living room or leaning against it while he bent her over that chair and took her from behind. Never again feeling him inside of her right here on this bench, their breath appearing in the cold winter air as she slid up and down his cock ever so slowly. She would grin as she saw the urgency in his eyes, wanting her to bounce faster, while she teased him, moving at the slow speed of the frigid water that just barely ruffled behind them in the breeze.
She’d lived in cities most of her life, and the two years she’d spent in inland Oregon were the first time she’d lived away from one. At first she’d hated that. It made her nervous to not be in the middle of a frenzy of strangers with schedules and agendas and appointments, the mutual environment of pressure and rushing allowing thousands of people to pass within inches of each other and not even notice one another. For months, she hadn’t even noticed the radiance of the Oregon landscape, nor had she gone out of her way to seek it out.
He, on the other hand, loved nature. When they’d met, he’d brought her here to the park and talked to her about the ecosystem and the vegetation and the wildlife. In the beginning, they’d sit on the bench and hold hands and listen to the silence. She’d look around and marvel at surroundings weren’t dominated by the city, and it was everywhere she looked.
Without consciously noticing it, she’d adjusted to the energy of the natural environment. Now it held an appeal for her that she hadn’t even recognized until she thought about leaving it. Last week, on her way to her last day of work, she had stared out the window and really looked at what she was passing. She drove as the sun came up, not yet visible from behind the towering mountains on her left, but the indirect light seeped its orange reach across the sky. On her right a field stretched out like it had never heard of mountains.
It was then she realized the inexplicable sense of escape she felt when she looked around and saw only nature. It was as though the intangible somehow leaked in through invisible spaces in her car and enveloped her, undaunted by her lack of conscious attention to its beauty.
And somehow, it had everything to do with him.
They had kissed for the first time on the bench where she now sat. She had turned his direction to look behind them, having heard the brush move and wanting to see what was there. As she did, he reached up to massage her neck, and her breath caught in her throat. She sat still, positioned almost touching him and facing behind them, the squirrel that had made the noise now munching frantically on an acorn it held between its rigid paws. As his fingers barely moved against her scalp, she had found herself whispering breathlessly in his ear that she didn’t remember the last time anything felt so good.
And it was true. Seconds later, he had answered, his voice as low as the breeze around them. “I know I might never get to have you,” he had begun. His voice had held the yearning of winter grass buried under the frost. “But,” he’d halted, and she’d held her breath. He’d continued in a raw, ragged, whispered voice, one twisted by nervousness and arousal. “I want to kiss you. I want to so much. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I knew I was going to see you today.”
Her breath had become jagged, his hand still barely moving against her hair. She couldn’t remember what she had said in response. But eventually she had noticed the shifting that was taking place, slow and perhaps as inevitable as the sunrise. Deliberately or not, they had been moving closer to facing each other.
She remembered the silence she had heard at that moment. Their cheeks had been touching, and he was moving so slowly it was almost imperceptible. For just a moment she found herself thinking, “Oh, God, he might kiss me,” in the lightest mental whisper. Suddenly, their mouths were aligned, and she didn’t have time to catch her breath before they slid together. There had been no space left between them.
Now, he stood facing away from her, toward the water she had heard the insects ricocheting off so many times the next summer as she rode him with abandon on the hard bench beneath her, crying out for all the wildlife and vegetation and ecosystem to hear. There weren’t that many places they had appeared together in public. Aside from their respective residences, most of their rendezvous had occurred right where she sat. A bench that she would most likely never see again, in a park where she would most likely never visit.
In a few short days she would be living in Miami. She wouldn’t drive anymore past the park’s big wooden sign that hung with tiny glittering icicles in the winter and commanded a bright circular flower bed in the summer, knowing she would be seeing him in a matter of moments. The vivid purple and yellow and fuchsia blooms would be thousands of miles from her when summer came again. She would be back in the city. And he wouldn’t be there to take her away, out into the realm of the earth and wild living things. He wouldn’t be there at all.
She met the hard stare of the gray horizon and studied the uneven line of mountaintops for what would likely be the last time. It was time to go.
He studied the water in front of him. The feeling that she was about to walk out of his life was lodged in the pit of his stomach. He thought of her comment about why life was so full of pain. He didn’t know, but he knew he was under its command now. And he had no idea when it would stop.
Would she miss him?
Gray twilight crept in around them. He lifted his eyes and noticed that the clouds had overcome the sun and now blanketed all he could see with a neutral bleakness. The mountains in the distance meshed with the sky, reminding him of the way they’d looked that first time he’d ever laid eyes on the horizon in his new home in eastern Oregon. He pushed his hands into his pockets and turned around. Back toward her. She looked up and met his eyes as he did. She looked away quickly as soon as they made eye contact.
“I was just thinking it’s about time to go,” she said, eyes on the ground. Her voice sounded tight.
He studied her. “No.”
She looked up at him with surprise. She started to speak, but he was already striding toward her, pulling her unceremoniously from the bench and up against him, kissing her with the solidity of the mountain behind him, which he pictured watching with approval.
She didn’t need convincing. Her body responded to him the way it always had, and soon she was clawing at his jacket, at everything that separated her from him, and he was shrugging out of it and pushing hers from her shoulders, their eyes still closed, nothing but harsh, frantic kissing between them as he ripped her blouse open and she tore off his belt.
Their clothes all came off this time, landing in a stack beside them. They ignored the bench as he all but threw her to the ground. She barely noticed the rough pine needles under her skin as she heard him rip open a condom, still kissing her. Then she felt him inside her, and a sob almost broke her veneer. She fought to breathe, feeling the burn in her core, pushing against him to turn them over so she could sit straight on top, riding his cock as if propelled by the very force of the earth itself.
He reached up and grabbed her hair, pulling her head down to his.
“I want you to stay,” he hissed in her ear, and the veneer broke. Her breath turned to a sob, and she fell against him, pushing herself onto him in rhythm with her crying. He turned them back over and drove into her, fiercely, as if he could force things through the power of their fucking to be the way he wanted them to. Harder and harder he fucked her, her wails sounding animalistic in the primal woods. The birds murmured around them, in sympathy he liked to think.
Her cheeks were streaked with tears. He felt even as she clung to him that something was breaking inside her, and he held her hair tighter to let her know he was there. He was there. He would break with her if he had to.
“I want you, I want you, I want you,” he whispered harshly in her ear, the words shooting forth like the throbbing of his cock, well within his possession but beyond his control.
She cried, pulling his body into hers, eyes closed, her face a scrunched up picture of immediacy and potency. It was when he looked at it that he felt something break in himself.
“I want you too,” she whispered, her eyes still closed.
He buried his face in her shoulder, feeling her tears against his ear as he pushed into her. She wrapped her legs around him so tightly it almost hurt, her hands gripping the back of his neck. Suddenly her sobbing intensified, and he knew that she was coming, though she rarely had in that position. Her body writhed wildly beneath him, her voice raw. Her breath was ragged as she finished, catching periodically as her body shuddered.
He kissed her and then came inside her, gripping her hair as his orgasm unleashed the ferocity inside him, the desperate frustration and carnality and longing that had driven him since he pulled her from the bench.
He could barely bring himself to pull out of her as he slid off her body, dropping his head to the ground as they came together, side by side on their backs on the rough ground, and she touched her head to his shoulder.
The sun was back, streaking through the cloud cover to hit the tops of the pine trees like fire. She could see the individual needles, brandished by the light, glowing like the sun was shooting through just for them.
“Like gold-plated pine needles,” she whispered, barely aware that she had spoken out loud. Glittering above them, they sparkled like the sun itself for another few seconds before an unseen cloud slid in, fading them back to deep matte green.
He made a small noise, acknowledging the change. “You know what they say,” he said after a moment. His eyes closed. “All that glitters…” She heard the quiet sadness in his voice as he left her to fill in the rest.
She repeated the saying in her mind and looked up at the pine needles again, rich and smooth and green far above them. To her, they still glittered. Her gaze dropped to the ring on her left hand. She didn’t know what made gold such a high standard.