by Elisabeth Baird
In a city with a name smaller than its population and bigger than its reputation live a man and woman who manage apartments. They work long days and at six o’clock, when the sun has finally settled down for the day, they decide to follow suit. Each day follows this same rhythm, and neither one complains, because it has been a good dance for the most part. At night, exhausted, they sleep, and the moonlight finds a way into their room the same way it always has. It flows in gently, like a breeze would; curling around the curtain, it passes over the floorboards, illuminating the invoices scattered over their large oak desk; it comes to a rest finally on her shoulder and his hand lying next to it. If light could illuminate the sound of soft breathing and the rustling of the sheets, it would show us that too.
But light is limited. So instead, it moves on to her face. The reflected light makes the shadows under her eyes look darker and the curve in his jaw seem tense. When they were younger they used to stay up for hours studying these things on each other. The way his nose curves up and hers points down. They way her eyes glow and how his mouth always has a smile tucked into it even if the light is bad. “I can hear it in your voice,” she would tell him, and laughing she would reach out, just so her fingers could confirm what she already knew was permanently there. When they were younger they used to laugh when the rainstorms hit, because they knew their city would likely lose power. They would pull out all the candles and talk to each other in the near dark about all that was missing without the lights, and how they actually didn’t miss any of it. She has boxes of candles packed away, still in the closet.
He loves her spirit and she loves his soul. He knows her worries and she feels his anxieties. The years seem to have stretched and compressed themselves into a box that reads the number twelve. Twelve months in a year they wake up and go to work managing an apartment complex. Twelve hours a day they sit back to back at two different desks trading numbers and figures that determine the rhythm of their lives. What will they eat, what will their kids wear? Where will they travel, and how far? there have been twelve pregnancies (two successful) and en you add up the ages of the adored children, a little boy and girl (tree and nine) it equals the number of years they have been married. Twelve is the number of states her mother lives away from them, and equals the number of minutes they sat on the phone (both silent) crying together, the last time her pregnancy failed. Their lives seem painted in the figure twelve.
“You two need a vacation!” her mother commands over the phone. “Your father and I have saved, and we know you have saved a little for travel, and we would like a week or two with our grand-kids anyway.”
The idea of time away grows strong in her mind,, and when she tells er husband, his only reply is “I think hat would be good honey. Let’s go.”
So they do. He budgets, she saves, and they feel the money and the call to make more pulling them every which way. Perhaps they should charge more rent? or get a new tenant? They look over and over their finances and see that money has begun to power everything. They need it to be able to pay the city tax that funds the school bus that drops their nine-year-old off at school across town each morning. Or if not for that, then to buy the extra electricity package, which, in turn, powers the laptop that houses the search engine that advertises the trip of a lifetime (this year) to Europe. It will be twelve days abroad, and it seems just right.
When they have booked the tickets, balanced the expenses, sent the children off to the grandparents, and boarded the plane, they realized that they have finally left. And after eighteen hours and two layovers, when they descend again (in some country too far away to be waking up congruently with all the responsibilities they left back in their own time zone), they know they have finally arrived. The air, thick with the autumn, calls them to move on and linger, all in the same motion. Somewhere books are opening and closing. They take their first step forward.
They walk together through the dusk-covered streets to the central bus station. Roasted hazel nuts are for sale and scarves too. He buys her a bright red scarf because her nose looks a little cold. She laughs because his does too, but before anything can be done about it, he has grabbed the suitcase and her hand, and they are running to the station. Hurriedly, they negotiate a bus ticket that seems like a bad deal but they can’t quite understand the broken accent and isn’t this what they had saved for anyway?
The luggage is stowed, shoved, cajoled into a space that seems to small to fit all the bags the company assured them it could, and they wonder for the fifth time in the last five minutes if maybe they should have left that extra pair of socks at home.
Finally the bus gets packed, the passengers loaded, and they begin to bump and surge trough old back roads and new highways. The woman sleeps with drool pooling at the corner of her mouth (dreaming, perhaps, of what her eyes can’t stay open long enough to see). The man hopes to see soon the best sights of some little country he has only read about, but it’s so hard to keep his eyes open. Exhausted, he too drifts off, head resting near hers, body softly swaying to the dissonant rhythm of the rocking bus and his wife’s gentle snores.
They awake hours later to find themselves in some little village. The sun is gently illuminating a small town square. It reveals to their hungry eyes every perfect crack in the aged cobblestone streets. In the distance church bells begin to chime the hour. One, tow, three… seven chimes they count. They trade wristwatches, and in delighted triumph, they change the hours forward. Neither mentions to the other how this one act eases the feeling of being foreigners to this place.
The days fly by. The town is picturesque and what they will describe in their postcard home as “innocent.” “The lives of the people here are so simple,” they will write.
As the trip progresses from town to town, meal to meal, lazy sunny days to starry quiet nights, their dreams become aggressive as they long for a life exactly like the one they fantasize exists her around them in this fairytale land.
On the third day, he buys a belt with carvings deep in the leather. On the fifth day she finds a dress that she knows was made just for her. They learn to say “hello” and “how are you” and “too much.” They learn “goodbye” also, but refuse to remember it. By the tenth day they are so in love they forget every fight that ever sat between them. She suggests tat they write a story. They spend on whole train ride in delight, planning each twist and turn, examining and expanding any detail their imaginations come up with, and when they walk home they hold hands and cry about the way that it had to end.
Sitting there by this stream, walking home next to this golden field, wandering through that city square day by day. They dream about living in a place like this where their lives will be simple too. “Let’s never go home,” they whisper to each other one night when the candlelight has burned low enough to hide everything around them but each other’s eyes. “We can bring the kids here.” They lie flat on their bellies and talk with their faces close together till dawn about all the easy they could change their lives if they just knew how. But with the fading night their dreams fade too. The sun rises and so must they.
“It’s time to pack,” she announces. They begin to pack it all away. Every dream and dress and belt must fit into a bag that won’t ever fit everything they want it to hold. He wonders for the fifth time in the last five minutes if maybe they should have brought a bigger bag. She leaves the extra pair of socks and a notepad with a tip for the young woman who will come and clean up this little space. When she is done, she sits on the edge of the low creaky bed to tie on her dusty shoes and begins to cry and can’t stop because she realizes the next time she takes them off, she will not be here. The man looks at her in silence, opens his mouth and closes it again. After a moment, he walks over to her corner of the bed and picking up the abandoned shoe, carefully ties it, laces over and under, over and under. Then, pulling gently, he ties the last knot onto just the right place of her tired, drooping foot.
Meanwhile, in a small room, located in the part of town the sun always reaches last, a young woman wakes up and lights a candle. The motion wakes her new husband who slowly stirs beside her. He gently rubs her back and asks her if it is really already time to be up. She reminds him that this is the day the foreign couple is leaving and they will need to prepare the small home her father rents for the next tourists who will stop through their village that year. He kisses her on her arm and wonders how he got a wife that is so pretty and remembers everything too. Her eyes soften, and she flops back down on the bed next to him, head close to his. Together they wonder, through the last few moments of their night, just what it would be like to have enough money to travel.
Back in the quiet, sun-scattered room, the man and woman finish packing. They work almost mechanically, neither one acknowledging that they will soon board a bus, that will take them to a flight, that will shoot them eighteen hours and twenty-three minutes back across the some sea where the time zones make sense and the nights always illuminate too much. They don’t mention how on Monday they will once again manage the apartments. They will add up charges and calculate fees on the surplus rent and send out messages advertising for new tenants to come and live in the “best place on Earth.” They will raise their little boy and girl with a lot of happiness. “This is our biggest adventure!” they will repeatedly say, and they will mean it. They will not put into words, however, the question that will come up often in their minds, that will quietly lace each frustrated, financial decision. It is this question that will bring them to bed late and compel her to arise early: “How will we pay for our next adventure?” They will raise the rent two dollars the month they return, and eight dollars more the next year, desperate to return to a simpler time when candlelight and star shine illuminated only the most essential things.
Amidst all this worry, it will be some years before they remember the candlesticks packed away, deep in their own cupboard, or notice one long night that the moon, in fact, does shine just as softly on the edges of their own curtained windows. He will smile, and blindly, she will touch his face, tracing the feature that she loves best.