There were no rental trucks available in my small home town of Gustine, so I had to rent one in Los Banos. The plan was to drive down in my car and one of us would drive the truck back.
You drove there as I sat quietly in the passenger seat, still tired from a hard week at work. We stopped early for lunch on the way down and barely spoke through the meal. When we got back in the car, you tuned the station to a talk radio program. I perked up to listen, thinking maybe this would be interesting, but found I had no interest in the topic at all. I didn't laugh at the radio hosts' jokes where you laughed, but you seemed to enjoy the program, and since your responses to my attempts of conversation were brief, I turned inside to thoughts of my own.
We stopped in Newman to make sure I knew how to get to the mini-storage again before we picked up the truck, and then took the backroads through Gustine to Los Banos. Only locals take these roads. Although it has been many years since I moved away, I still know each of them by heart. Small towns never change.
As we drove to Los Banos, I occasionally pointed out places of special meaning to me: the apricot orchard where I used to sneak fruit as a child, the irrigation canal where I learned to swim, my old high school, the burger shack on what was once the edge of town where my friends and I listened to the juke box back when a song cost a dime (three songs for a quarter), a farm where I was hired as a swather driver cutting alfalfa, the ranches and farms of people who populated my past.
I was the one who suggested we take the same route back to Newman instead of catching the Interstate on the outside of town. I wanted to see those places again. I led the way in my car and you followed in the rental truck.
When I left home, I had moved to a ranch between Los Banos and Gustine and had lived there for several years. This was the route I had taken to drive back into town to see my folks. I didn't know it was going to hit me so hard coming back. Suddenly I wasn't middle-aged anymore. I was 19 and going home to have dinner with my family: homemade cornbread, potatoes, greens, and ham steak. There would be cold whole milk with dinner and coffee after with green tomato pie.
The crying hit me so hard and so suddenly; I thought I wouldn't be able to keep driving. I was afraid if I stopped though, I would lose the feeling that I was driving home. My parents would still be alive and my little sister would still be little. I continued on to the spot near town where the road splits- to the right to my folks' house; to the left to town. When the moment came, I reluctantly veered left.
I thought I had control of my emotions until we got back to the mini-storage in Newman. As I pulled up to unit H-24, I knew this was all wrong. This couldn't be all that was left. I wanted to go home. I didn't want this to be it. The crying came back hard and furious and I tried to stifle it with both hands. There were other people around, people I didn't know and didn't want staring at me. The best I could do was cry silently, hands over my face, rocking back and forth in my car. You came up to my window and asked me if I was alright. I did my best to swallow it all, to be a grown-up, to not cry. I got out of the car and focused on the work at hand.
It hit me again once we got the storage unit door open. There sat my mother's dresser and my father's roll-top desk. I tried very hard not to cry, but couldn't stop it. You stood several feet away not saying a word, not moving towards me, as I again covered my face and cried. I thought my legs would give way. I wanted more than anything to leave and not be here in this place that told me my parents were dead and my sisters were three thousand miles away. I felt completely alone.
You barely spoke to me as we loaded the truck and I couldn't find the words to tell you how I felt. I have never been able to ask for love or comfort. I moved toward you and came within hugging distance. Still, words wouldn't come. I waited. When you didn't move towards me, I said I would return the key and lock to the office to let them know the unit was no longer needed while you finished tying down the load. You thought it was a good idea. I waited too many heartbeats for you to turn and kiss me goodbye or to even look at me. I turned and left.
I drove the short distance to the mini-storage office and handed the key and lock to a woman I didn't know. She asked me whose name the unit had been rented under and I realized I didn't know. I waited while she looked through her records and thought about this hometown of mine that I had ran away from over two decades ago. There wasn't any family left here and too few remembered me, the prodigal daughter.
"This was rented under Annie Hines", she said as she looked up at me. "Are you a relative?" she asked, but before I could answer, the look of recognition came over her face as she realized the similarity. "You look just like your mother!" I had long ago gotten used to sharing my face with another. I smiled and said yes I know, people used to tell me that all the time. I wanted her to hurry up and finish the paperwork so I could leave before I lost it again, but instead, she told me how sorry she was for my loss.
Small town people have no sense of urgency and can rarely recognize it in others. I politely smiled and nodded at the right moments as she recalled her own memories of my mother. I stood straight and clenched my teeth to keep from crying again.
She must have realized the affect she was having on me because she stopped mid-sentence to ask me if I was ok. I tried to put on my best face, make light of the awkward situation, and tell her breezily, "Yes, I'm fine" but what came out instead wasn't even words. Before I could stop her, she was up and around her desk putting her arms around me. I was mortified to be crying in front of a stranger. How undignified. She only let go of me long enough to bring me a cup of water. She stood next to me, one arm around my shoulders as I alternated between trying to apologize and gain control of this unseemly show of emotion and losing control completely.
When I got back to the mini-storage unit, you had already left. I had no way to reach you and figured from past experience you had decided to head back without me. As I drove out of town, I saw you in the rental truck coming in the opposite direction and flagged you to pull over. I could tell by the look on your face and your quick body movements that you were mad that I had taken so long. I didn't bother to explain what had happened. I didn't think it would help.
This morning over coffee, I got up the nerve to ask you why you didn't comfort me when you saw me crying. You explained that it seemed like a private moment. I've heard this explanation from you before when I've needed comfort and have told you many times what I needed from you then. It hasn't made a difference. You still let me cry alone.
Neither of us said anything for several minutes and I realized it wouldn't make a difference to tell you again. Instead, I looked at the newspaper in my hands as if absorbed in the story and wondered to myself how a man can be married to a woman for twelve years and still not know her heart.
The rest of the story...
I was determined not to cry today when it came time to unload the rental truck, and for the most part, I succeeded. Only a few tears escaped, but they didn't slow me down. Hannah and I carried down most of the furniture and I cleaned and polished each piece as we brought it in. It was hardest cleaning my father's desk.
When it was all done and I had finished vacuuming, I went upstairs to ask if you were ready to take the rental truck back. You could see something was bothering me and asked me what was on my mind. I hesitated, not sure if it was worth mentioning.
I shrugged and calmly said I know I've told you this before and it didn't do any good so I didn't think it would now, but that I don't understand how you can stand there watching me cry and not comfort me. I know your reasons, that you think you're giving me a private moment, but I've told you before that's not what I want or need and you continue to do it. I don't think your reaction is normal, that most people instictivly offer comfort, and it makes me feel very alone and unloved. When you do that, it makes me not want to share those moments with you because it makes me feel worse than I already do.
To my surprise, you shot up angry from the bed and said we should go return the truck now. I followed you out, shocked by your reaction. Shock quickly gave way to anger as I shot up the deck stairs to follow you.
Claire was already standing there ready to go with us and I didn't want to fight in front of our youngest child, so I said, "I didn't want to fight with you over this." You closed the door on the truck without answering me.
I caught up with you in town and we acted like nothing was wrong, but I could tell you were still very angry. I asked if you were coming to the pool with us and you said maybe, which I know means no. Instead, you planned on dropping Claire and I off at the house and driving back into town to pick up your paycheck while the girls and I went to the pool.
You were furious at me. I didn't want to fight. I wanted to talk, to see each other's point of view, to finally resolve this between us. But you wouldn't hear it. I apologized for saying what I did and your only response was, "Pretty hurtful". When I asked what, you said it was what I had to say before we left.
I still thought we could talk it out even though now I was angry that I am to blame. I said I wanted to go with you to pick up your check so we could talk. You didn't want me to go.
So when you get home, I have only one question for you. Do you think its better for children to stay married for their sake or do you think its better for them we divorce?