Their last night, he told her how leavings have several virtues.
This is the way it will be, he said.
Come morning and her driving, the sun will warm her fingertips on the wheel of that big car and it'll be as if he's there, inside that sun, inside her fingertips. He'll take up in the thinnest parts of her, and he told her to name those parts: the beds of her nails, the roots of her hairs, the vessels, the bones. He told her he'd run that space like it was all his own, and he'd keep running until she felt it, until she shivered and swelled just a bit bigger to be full with him.
Their last night, he told her he would always be with her, whether she was here or there or not.
I'll make it easy for you, he said. This is for keeps.
Orrin has come to her this way every morning since she left him, every morning for three in a row. He's steadfast about his promises, and she's been made to feel it, made to be grateful and trusting in sweeter, higher things. She drives I-10 with the sun rising in her windows, trimming the Gulf Coast deltas, she and the baby. This is the last span of highway they'll need to be on for a while, and she wonders how Orrin will come to her when she's not behind the wheel of this car, when she has no need for travel in the early hours of the day.
In Galveston he said, You'll think of me in morning times most often, and she said, Yes, I will, but that's not been true. She thinks of him all the time, or not at all, the way your brain thinks to beat your heart or breathe air into your lungs without your knowing it. There's the feather he tucked beneath the visor in her car, a green feather, from one of his birds. So many little things bring Orrin.
They still talk inside her head, conversations quiet and simple in the coolness. It's enough to keep her driving long into the distance so as to listen and to speak.
He'll say, I know how it would be if you hit the water from a height, like if you fell, or dove from a cliff.
Then she'll say, How would that be, and she'll whisper, as if he's just so close to her, as if he could hear her think those words, and maybe back in Galveston he can.
He'll say, You'd be falling and falling and all drawn up in yourself and ready to hit that water like it was a brick wall, and then you'd just keep falling, your skin stinging and crawling off your bones, and you just falling, your lungs filled up with water instead of air.
And she'll say, That's what you think?
And he'll answer, That's how it would happen to you. Me, I'm a different story.
She'll laugh to herself, and maybe later they'll talk about another thing. There are moments she can feel his hand in hers, along her thigh and at the hollow where her neck becomes her shoulders. She hears his voice; feels his touch. She does not miss him yet, and this is why.
She has always had a high threshold for pain. Sometimes it may be hours before she realizes she's hurt herself. She has learned there is no pain out there that could bring her to her knees, that could cut her or bruise her, so she would stop what she was doing and lie down and not get up again. Pain is always loose and free and available. It will wait until she wants it.
She drives with the window of her big car rolled down, an old Loretta Lynn song turned up on the radio. The breeze is warm and sugared with early Alabama fall. She sings for the baby, his silent, sleeping company, and she thinks how soon he'll be waking up, wanting her. That's what she'll fix on until he goes to sleep again.
She is twenty-five, a quarter of something she has yet to figure out. She has been to college. She's had scientific training and knows the chemistry of common things. She moved from her parents' house when it still belonged to both of them, had a job back in Charlotte in a medical center, held a place in the solid, everyday world. Her life was coarse and complicated to her, beginning and ending so much.
These things about her have not changed since she left home. She still knows what she's always known, but added to that is Orrin, what he told her about herself. He had young, awkward things to say at first, how she was smart and strong and good and pretty, but from him she wanted to hear what she'd never heard before. So then he told her how she had a woven step, the inside of her calf brushing the back of the other like her steps were plaiting themselves to the ground, and they began walking everywhere together. He loved her. She knew it. But he said it would be just once upon a time when she went home again.
She's been gone from Charlotte since the spring, west to the Gullf of Mexico. She has not seen her fiancé, Cott, her parents, her job, or anyone she knows from home since March, and now it's fall. They all think her to be missing, to have been taken or murdddddered or hit over the head so hard she may not be herself anymore, but she is fine and well, and has been for the longest time. She didn't believe she would ever go back, but Orrin told her differently. Now she treasures all the things Orrin said as tiny nascent truths, waiting for the space to become full, to become themselves.
She drives through the night so that the baby will sleep. During the day, they take rooms in pink hotels with swimming pools and ceiling fans and laundered sheets cool from the air conditioner. She remembers the time she and Orrin brought air conditioners to her grandmother's house so they could be lovers in winter times and colder places, December, Montreal, Juneau. Now she thinks that if she reached out, he would be beside her, his head on the pillow, his body in the sheets. It's only a spell they've chosen not to break.
This carefulness with spells is the way they've always been with each other, but what they call always is just the stretch of summer out behind them. Time has passed differently. She often forgets they knew each other as children, forgets they knew each other before they were lovers, when Orrin was polite and she was desperate. Now the thing between them has grown up. She has the feeling it will be okay without her.
She takes the baby to the pool when the maid comes around. They float, she on her back and the baby pulled up on her chest, his cheek to her lips. She whispers to him how she and her sister loved their lake back home, and he trails his long toes in the water. There are often other children in the pool, boys in striped trunks with beach balls and rafts and pails they fill with water and dump on the concrete. There are women with books and sunglasses perched beneath lone umbrellas. The baby sees all this, and she's almost sure he feels no part of it. That's fine. He will be different from other boys, other men, and such is life. Such is what she's made for him.
Night comes, and they drive again. When she gets tired, she makes a point to find water - the ocean, a lake, a slow thin river good for swimming. She does it like an animal tucking in for winter, an insect spinning its cocoon. She straps the baby into his seat on the shore, skins off her clothes to pile on the sand. Distant headlights catch her whiteness, the crown of her head, the spread of her bare shoulders in the otherwise dark.
She takes to the water all at once. There is breathlessness and late summer cold, but she dives and surfaces, swims out and back. She sees Orrin in the ghosts of things beneath the surface, just beyond her reach in that spellbound way. It's in the water she feels closest to him, because it's true that all water is connected and flows around the earth in circles, and someday, she thinks, he could have this water on himself. Then, in her mind, she's connected to all the water she ever swam in, all the people she ever...