Ad Astra‌ • Amy Mrotek

By the time we arrived at the restaurant, the tabletop candles had drizzled down to whimpers. They cast spastic darts of light across white tablecloths – the dull, starchy kind. Kendall and Dave had already had two glasses of wine each. They looked over us softly as we entered holding hands, hellos relayed in hushed, sympathetic tones and one-armed hugs. I blamed the traffic. We all knew the truth.

Bread was served immediately. The waiter must have been hovering in a corner ready to pounce, doubting this elusive other couple would ever show. He’d seen it before, couples meandering, stand-up dates, sad, foodless bills. I wondered if he could make out the dark circles under Gale’s eyes. Maybe not. As Gale ordered water he didn’t look up from his lap, staring down with the kind of furrowed void amplified by the dim shadows of orange candlelight.

I reached over, rubbed his back. He slowly tried a smile, an attempt that looked as if it physically hurt. Kendall buttered a roll, asked about vacation with genuine curiosity lacing her voice. My mouth went dry. Somewhere in the background piano notes drifted about, light enough I could picture them bouncing off our glasses, glinting with the sheen of a thousand and one smiles Gale and I had long since allowed to pass. Our waiter appeared again, this time with appetizers. Black and blue ahi tuna, drizzled in cilantro and oil, seared tenderloin on charred crostinis. Gale meagerly picked through, struggled with a weak comment on the weather. I tapped my foot beneath the table, letting my toes tense and roll from one melodic beat to the next, timing laughs and chimes and responses and head nods, everything, the whole show, with the silent pound the others should never have to know.

• • •

    I find a sort of wrenching harmony to the Badlands. They’re more than the flat, expressionless sprawl mocking every weary road trip. If you go into them with such a mindset then of course you’ll grow anxious. No, you can’t know the Badlands until you let their lines soak under your lids. You must accept them as is, to and from infinity, until you see burnt umber streaks between waning blink. I like the way they force you to look always ahead at every possible horizon, how they play out in peripherals like a blues ballad, in jagged edges and blurring red croons. It’s the sort of sight strong enough to make the heart sigh.

We had hardly left Sioux Falls when Gale drifted off to sleep. I let him do it. I wasn’t someone who needed company while I drove, and his even breaths made me feel a few shades more at peace. It was Dr. Rollins who suggested we go. “Time together in a new place will be stimulating, in many ways.” He had a deep, swooping voice, the kind you would imagine voicing over movie trailers. And every Tuesday afternoon he narrates the slow burn of Gale’s moods, gives plot twists in pill bottles. I don’t resent him for it. I only envy the speed at which he can sweep through new suggestions, in how he cuts Gale and me into scenes with the precision of a film editor. Pause here, pull back there. Wait – zoom in, that’s the moment we’ve been waiting for, ladies and gents. He has bright, hooded eyes that blink abundantly but still seem so calm. And he understands things about Gale better than I.

Five hours in, we reached our cabin. Gale remained in the car while I checked in at the lodge’s front desk, lingering to ask about nearby sights and restaurants, maybe some good hiking trails. Gale wasn’t up to these sorts of things lately, but he let me make plans anyway. And if it were a good morning, those plans would see some life.

We had booked a single-room, A-frame tucked into the western edge of Badlands National Park. Pockets of dry, leafless mountain ash jutted around us like exclamation marks. I ignored the warning, followed the dusted dirt path to our cabin door and looked up at the dimming sky. Hints of stars already peppered the sight. If they were so far away, they sure did a bad job of hiding it.

This is the part where I’m supposed to complain, isn’t it? Night seems to call for it, teasing in its soft, dark rims. Was there regret? Ask me in three days and you’ll get a different answer. Though thinking in future tense hardly does any good, I bite my fingernails constantly and yet they still grow back. Gale is the piano playing at the restaurant we would hear in a few weeks time. He is the clink of glass on glass without making eye contact, of small sips and smaller grins. Our friends cannot relax around him, and I can’t blame them. The air is suddenly cold. I found myself shivering, the jolts enough to make the dark seem that much more in my head. Tomorrow, yes, maybe tomorrow he’ll actually be here.

• • •

    The first two days were spent in the cabin. Gale was tired – beyond it, truthfully. I could hear the groans in his bones when he rolled over in bed. On occasion, his body would unfurl from beneath the sheets, lift up, glide into the bathroom or grab a drink from the sink. He was so weak with his movements he looked like he might evaporate. I brought him his meals, lasagna, cheeseburger and fries, a breakfast skillet, easy on the peppers. All takeout tucked in styrofoam boxes, ordered at whatever diner in town I stopped by. He popped two steroids with each plate and still hardly touched anything.

“Maybe just some toast next time.” His eyes wrinkled in an attempt at kind jest. We held hands, his knobbed, mine afraid to clutch too hard. At dusk, we sat on the swinging bench of our cabin porch and tried to guess what the birds were saying in the distance. I had packed binoculars, which made Gale genuinely laugh. He thought using them was ridiculous if we didn’t even know what we were looking at. I answered that was half the fun. He rolled his eyes. In an odd way, I felt pleased.

• • •

    Two years ago, Gale stood in our apartment bathroom and cut off all his hair. He had quit his job only hours earlier, left me a fanatical voicemail, demanded truth and depth and answers to questions he seemed to cleave from the clouds. I found him curled up on the tile floor, naked, dark locks cluttered around his bare feet. It was like some grotesque homage to a childhood tantrum, made complete by full weeps and body shakes. By the time the tremors subsided I was able to guide him to bed. He slept for three full days.

The never next morning, I stopped by a grocery store to pick up some of his favorites – gummy bears, Gardettos, the chunky peanut butter with the nuts still in. I don’t know why, but a pang in my chest said having those things in the cupboards might help. My inner Dr. Rollins trying its best. It had started to rain, so I dodged into a corner diner. It smelled of bleach and pie. I sat down for a cup of coffee and watched the raindrops scatter like strangers across the glass pane. Most stuck, a few broke apart and drizzled ever downward. The waitress – older, graying frown lines and even grayer frizz – looked me over with a matronly sigh and asked if I lived in the neighborhood. Funny, I told her no. I still don’t know why I did that.

Between Gale’s downs and upping my own time, it became routine to revisit alone and drink coffee. I tried always to sit in a different spot, to order a pastry here and there, avoid the shifty concern of that particular waitress. She was the wide-hipped type, the kind who took well to the pseudo-doting and attentive gait her job applauds. I would overhear her months later consoling a woman sitting in my exact booth, sipping her own mug, watching the same dreary rain hitting the same windowpane in tender persistence. Her voice had the bite of shears shredding paper.

“Oh, my dear, we all grow to resent the one we love. It’s inevitable. Either they become too smart for us or not smart enough, too serious, too lazy. You name the trait and fill in the blank. But really it’s all the same. We aren’t really resenting them, not if we’re honest. We’re resenting the things we learn about ourselves from them.”

 • • •

    “You’re good to me,” Gale whispered. His hand was tracing patterns from the roots of my hair down to their frayed tips, the long, straight strands like liquid between fingertips. We were lying on the cabin bed, facing one another. “You’re so good to me. It makes me look even worse, you know.”

The words crashed into my skull, forming concave dents. His hand now felt like needlepoints, sharp threading on thin skin. Day five of our vacation. We only had one more left, and then it was back home.

I suddenly wanted nothing more than to push away his wrist, look him in the eye and yell out there was no enjoyment in this. Not the remotest trace, no smoke trail leading to the silent flames I burn from one exhaustive, leaching moment to the next. This wasn’t an act for tragic applause. I didn’t ask for a spit-shined badge. I wanted to pound into his pulse how I lived, ate, slept – gasped, violently, silently – in the suspension of his night, in an endless maze it was never fair to walk. How there was no better or worse to speak of. How he was selfish. How I was lost. How there was only this, and this ached.

Yet I didn’t. I reached for him instead, whispered the words of love. I let his hands knead ever deeper while the smooth frowns of dusk notched fine lines against our skin. What else could I say? It was all there was left.

• • •

     I look back in quiet moments and hear noise. I watch darting city traffic and see the Badlands, the packed bedrock, the wear, the streaks and ceaseless lines. I watch Kendall twirl her forks in pasta and lift the noodles to her mouth, lips moving in what I can only assume to be my own leap into slow motion. I think of corner cafes, of rain, of prairie falcons we heard cawing and somehow could laugh at without second thought. The smell of juniper. Gale’s bald head against the pillow, quilts stretched up to his chin. He is right, he always had been. I was good to him, good like flat terrain is for drowsy eyes. If there is wisdom in this, I accept any of its trace.

Our drive that night from the restaurant was slow and hushed. The DJ on the radio whirred jokes and Gale gazed out the window. I suppose the whole thing would have looked romantic in the right still, the tinted bursts of passing streetlamps like watercolor kaleidoscopes, our silhouettes shadowed and blurred against black windows that acted as mirrors. We had taken a few vacation pictures but had yet to upload them anywhere. Gale would like it this way, as he liked it late at night, in quiet cars, without the burden of behaving some way he can’t. I dismantle every turn like a puzzle in my head. I am careful and calm, glancing his way every so often, a blank check in my gaze waiting for him to sign off. I can see his head lolling against a thin shoulder. He ate half his entrée. Our friends invited us out next week, but I politely declined. Perhaps the week after. If Gale felt up to it.

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