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Three Weeks Before the River Crested
Somehow, I fell asleep. Naked, under the buzzing fluorescence of the motel room fixtures, the well-worn sheets tangled and bunched between my thighs. The bed and I occupied most of the room. The scant rest held the nightstand, the plastic wooden dresser and the brown plaid chair he was sitting on when I woke up. Every thing in that room was a shade of brown or yellow or brownish yellow—the wallpaper, the matted shag carpet, the flimsy sheets that half-covered me, the harsh glow of the lights under which I had managed to sleep. Until his bottle of Ten High met the nightstand and startled me awake.
“Hi.” Groggily, I leaned myself up on my left elbow, one eye open, the other resisting the merciless light. His whiskey was on ice, but I didn’t see the dingy plastic bucket. Maybe it was in the bathroom.
“Hey,” he said. It was less of a word than a low sound. He didn’t look at me. I couldn’t decide if I should conceal or reveal more of my breast. He wouldn’t notice in either case, I figured, and did nothing.
He was staring down at his guitar, and with his free hand, reaching for his drink. He took a gulp, licked his bottom lip and set the glass back down in its runny water ring. His fingers pressed the strings the way someone else’s hands would doodle absentmindedly, creating that shallow plunk of a guitar being toyed with, unplugged. It wasn’t a song I recognized. Maybe it was new. Or before my time. He wasn’t singing, not even under his breath. It was hard to tell.
I’d been noticing for weeks, but only really admitting it to myself at that moment, how lousy he looked and how bloated his face had become. Like when he had his wisdom teeth pulled two years before, but worse. His cheeks, his chin, even his forehead looked fat and swollen, almost waterlogged. He was squinting, head hanging over his guitar, his big, calloused fingers moving around, blotting out the frets.
Lately, his eyes never fully opened. I didn't think he could actually see me through those small windows, under those puffy eyelids, over his fleshy cheeks. But then I doubted it mattered. He rarely even raised his head to anyone, to anything, anymore. Even on stage, several hundred pairs of eyes focused on him, he barely lifted his face to examine or acknowledge the devout crowd. He didn’t see me, but he didn’t see anyone else.
“How was the show?” I asked, out of habit, but still in interest. He changed songs. This one I knew.
“All right,” he answered. Out of obligation.
His Goodwill, old-man’s shirt matched the color of the walls but wasn’t sweaty. The show must have ended a while ago. The gripping in my belly felt like 5am, in the dark waters between too early and too late. I surveyed the room, trying to prove it. That cheap room didn’t even have a clock. I wondered if he was tired or drunk or both. And I wondered what he would look like if he slept at night and wasn’t encouraged to drink at work.
My weight and the bedsprings were conspiring against my elbow. I folded the lumpy pillow and used it to prop me up. Spreading my legs, I unbunched the sheets to cover myself. The room wasn’t cold, but I was suddenly distracted by my nakedness. I wanted a shield, even a threadbare one. Just a few hours before, I’d imagined that he would walk in, find me there in nothing but the sheets, touch my skin with intention, his fingertips smooth from years of pressing and sliding on metal strings. We would have sex for hours—sex so remarkable we’d smile about it over diner coffee and greasy hash browns the next day, after our exhausted, satiated bodies slept well past checkout.
Tucking the sheet around my shoulders, I felt foolish for having imagined that. I knew better than to think that sex would even occur to him, that my legs and breasts and hair spread out over that junky motel bed would arouse his body or any other part of him. I began to rationalize that he played a long set, maybe two hours. They all probably went out for drinks afterward. He must be exhausted.
“Two encores or one?” I asked, surprised to hear it slide out of my mouth. I held my breath for a moment and tried not to move. He hovered over the guitar, also motionless.
“Three.” Holding the guitar tightly and pressing it against his slumped chest, he coughed. His fingers started moving again.
“Well, they must have really liked you,” I said mechanically. Like an idiot or a goddamned groupie. What I really wanted to know was if he would ever get into bed or sit in that ugly chair all night. The ratty shade on the tiny window by the bathroom was pulled down, sealing off any light. Hell, it really could have been morning. I was tired.
“I guess,” he said.
But I knew he wasn’t thinking about the crowd or whether they liked him or the show or anything else. The ice in his glass was just about gone, the final sips of whiskey diluted to the color of his shirt. The bottle sat precariously close to the neck of his guitar, and I was afraid he’d knock it off the nightstand. He didn’t. He stopped fingering the songs and set the instrument down on the floor, gently leaning it against the chair. He stood up, looked at me for the first time since I woke up and walked slowly toward the bathroom.I rolled on to my stomach, wishing he’d turn off the lights.
Robyn Steely runs, writes, and lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is the Executive Director of a nonprofit community writing organization. Robyn has facilitated numerous writing workshops for veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder, teen girls in residential drug treatment, and men incarcerated at the county jail.
“My front porch is huge, stretching across more square feet than my bedroom. Sitting there, I look out to the street through a Gala apple tree the previous owners manipulated into espalier. It rebelliously grows skyward despite their intentions. On warm afternoons, my old cat will step a paw or two out onto the porch to join me, but inevitably she retreats, afraid of the outside.”