Mara had never before tonight just peeled away from Moab, heading south now, running through the last 45 m.p.h. trap toward Devil’s Corridor in her weary, humming and howling Expedition. The blood red ridgeline running south by west nodded at her escape. Her new/old and always, Dan, was with her minutes before; he had hit her tonight, and the sting of it wouldn’t leave her alone.
She had rushed down from Spanish Fork to share the news. She and Rand had lost the child, the engagement was off, and the stain of that capricious move could be exonerated. Mara was his again, damn the 3BDR and the $, she was restored out of that marriage thanks to an embryo who slipped the surly mucus and set her free. Dan, who—at first—flushed at the good news, still and mysteriously returned into a sullen state, deciding the reason for their rekindling wasn’t immediately digestible. Somehow he fell into a poet’s condition over their separation and needed the time to dissolve his defenses once again. Mara, so intoxicated by her newfound freedom and resolve to risk everything with Dan, including living hand-to-mouth under their once shared rafting business, pursued him to the driveway where she found him working on his Jeep.
“This is our time, Dan, finally,” she implored him.
Dan set down his jug of transmission fluid and laughed. “You just don’t get it, do you?”
“I think the proper thing here would be for you to smile and pull me into your arms.”
“If that kid had taken hold you woulda stayed up in Fork and never again thought of us.”
Mara shook her head. “That could’ve been true,” she admitted. “That was how things looked a month ago. But we need to celebrate what’s become our second chance. When my baby left, so did everything I felt for Rand. I hardly had time to mourn our child before I was filled with relief. I realized how much of myself I had agreed to give up just to begin a family. The horror of it. Rand’s humorlessness. My not knowing anyone there. Last week I thought of our hungry years together, your relentless sense of humor, your smile, your backbone...everything about us. The way we could turn a shit day into a picnic, Ramen, box wine, and everything. I know it’s never as pretty to set things straight the way we could when our problems were innocent. There’s not going to be a ‘right’ way for me to come back to you. Except now, when I’m happiest, and most aware of your gifts, your love, your joy...I’m right here, Dan.”
Dan took two steps toward Mara. He felt an engulfing urge to embrace her, but pulled back and struck her across the left jaw with his open palm instead. His eyes were filling up, turning wild, the hurt contorting his expression like a vintage holographic card. “It’s just a slap,” he reflected in a numb limbo of pain. “It’s just a joke hit, Mar.”
In Monticello, an hour south, the runaway-and-now-childless-ex-bride-to-be found her refuge for the night in the shape of a Masonic heap of a Best Western motel. Mara ran to the bar for three rounds of spite and a nightcap to extinguish her light. The lounge let her slip inside like a holiday soup kitchen, nearly ignoring her furtive paces to the brass paneled counter. “Something brown, red, syrupy, hair-on-the-chesty, somewhere between a Manhattan and a Rob Roy, drop the cherry, but keep it coming three times,” she said to the bartender. She needed to unhitch the fury she held for Dan; she was most upset that he only slapped her, and that there wasn’t a bruise or a lasting throb that could make the day as lasting and perverse as it was in her emotional ledger. She knew he was only scolding her the way a gentleman in an Austen story would smack a mare with a riding crop. Mara was most hurt by the unnecessary lesson of the open-palmed banishment; she was left with an uncivilized loneliness—and a fury she couldn’t express.
It was during this unfortunate hour when a hand gripped her right shoulder. Normally Mara would cringe and tighten at a stranger’s hand, but given her sparring session hours before, she surprised herself by nearly welcoming it. The hand came with the singing miasma of a friendly cologne, the type her uncle used to splash on during the holidays. Turning on her swivel stool she beheld a man who emanated a shockingly knowable visage.
“Mara, it’s a treat to see you again, how are you?”
“Ha! I think I’m just fine,” she burst out. “I just can’t put it into words right now. I’m drinking this sludge for stupid reasons, tonight, not...chronic ones.”
“I figured as much. I haven’t seen you around here before.” Mr. Wilder ran a hand across his hair covered arm and nodded to the bartender for a beer (in a nearly unnoticeable second his hand not-so-subtly continued through his receding hairline as if to gauge how differently Mara would view him today, now, so long since school). “You’re here for business? The Winter Wheat Summit?”
“No, I...I’m not here to chat about farm implements or planting, no, Mr. Wilder.”
“It’s Drew now, Mara. Just Drew.”
Mara sat up straight and paused to allow her newly liquored timing to flutter into her speech patterns. “So, Drew,” she dropped in one vaporous exhalation, “are you still teaching Spanish in Durango?”
“Ah, no.” Drew pulled a strained slug from his beer bottle. He cracked a lighthearted smile. “I’m...facing a situation back there for something...quite innocent, to be sure.”
“Jesus, Mara, I know, it’s not to form. I’m a decent human being. I tried my damndest.”
“Was it a, a, girl?”
“It was during our annual spring class trip to Manzanillo. I let slip that I was on the outs with my wife and this angel, this, practically, very practically eighteen-year-old honors student of mine, well, she took mercy on me in a way that, while, perfectly natural in most countries...”
Mara let out a snarl, nearly drooling her Rob-Hattan down her chin. “Did you get her in trouble? I mean, is she--?”
“Very. I’m teaching here, now. It’s peaceful. It’s just far enough from that storm cloud for me to decide whether to grant my wife a divorce and move the girl here with the kid or just...die in this lounge.”
“Now there, Drew. It’s not altogether that bad. In fact, I have to say it’s refreshing to know that even someone as well-stitched as you can fuck everything up.” Mara stroked the mat of dark hair just above Wilder’s watch.
The door to Mara’s motel room latched shut with a hollow shudder just after sunset. The cloud of cologne had barely begun to dissipate. In the minutes before her body was clasped to Wilder’s, his grateful and pungent frame rocking with painful insistence above her. She smiled at the accidental meeting, the comedy of the affair. She laughed at the way Drew had latched his balding head against the same side of her face that was slapped red just hours before by the love of her life. She laughed further at the new memory of Wilder’s watch, and how she heard it ticking against her ear during their ten minute trial of loneliness together.
Driving back to Moab the next morning she slowed her Expedition along the front of Dan’s home. She honked. Dan popped open his door and walked halfway toward her with a ghostly air of contrition on his casted expression. He appeared torn and trapped by her renewed proximity and quelled by her exquisitely innocent face.