h2>Dating : The Same Old Thing
Brian reached Bison County before dark. The long summer days gave him the pleasure of arriving before night swallowed everything around him. The sun had fallen beneath the horizon but left its glow casting up into the orange, pink, and purple sky. He reached Cochrane City and drove along Main Street. A Miller Light sign flashed neon through the window of a bar. Brian realized he was now old enough to grab a drink in his hometown, and the sudden idea of that freedom made him quickly pull off to the side of the road and park in front of the sign’s blue glow. Brian saw no one he knew as he stepped inside the building. It smelled of cigarettes and air conditioning. He pulled himself onto a bar stool and ordered a drink. The cool sparkle of beer seemed to wash out the long drive. His legs pulsed with pleasure at being stretched, and he felt welcomed home.
He had told Katie he would get to her house sometime in the evening. The darkening sky suggested Brian stop after his second beer, and he left quickly, a finger-printed glass and a damp ten-dollar bill his only evidence of being there.
The beer quickly leaked into his blood through his empty stomach, lightening his head slightly. Any nervous feeling was whisked away and intermittently belched out as he drove down the road. Katie’s house was outside town to the north off of the old highway that wound through the fields and trees like an artery. Though he had not driven the roads in years, he remembered them well.
Each familiar tree he saw along the way, every curve and push of the accelerator reminded him of the times he had went to the same house years ago. He remembered the excitement of drawing nearer to her house, how though it was only a twenty-minute drive, the journey there felt as though it took ages when he was finally able to wrap his arms around her. The blue dark of night closed in as Brian recalled the excitement. It spread through his body with the beer. It warmed his chest, stomach, and groin.
Brian turned off the highway onto a county road. Fresh tar with toilet paper lining the cracks seemed to dashed away from his truck like they were escaping his tires. The road went on for a few minutes. He leaned forward so that his chest was almost resting on the steering wheel. His eyes faced forward and searched for the glowing road sign that signaled the turn off. It illuminated like a moth flying into a fire, and Brian followed the insect’s final glow.
The house remained unchanged as though it were frozen in time since the last summer night he had been there. The same cloud of dust followed his truck as he pulled it into place and turned off the ignition. It passed silently by, toward the house, lit by the expectant porchlight. The hum of insects and the sweet odor of a campfire hung in the air. Brian stepped out and walked up to the house like he had done years before. He was calm and filled with longing.
His thick knuckles rapped at the door, a cheap hollow sound rang out, echoed off of some building that lay beyond in the darkness. He waited for an answer, and faintly heard the sounds of rapid footsteps approaching the door. He stood up, his muscled chest expanding out.
The door cracked open, and through it he peered into the unchanged living room. Warm light flooded the space. The door cracked open slightly more, and a set of small fingers reached around. Their pale skin was illuminated by the porchlight. Brian lowered his gaze. Two large eyes peaked out from a round, cherubim face. Blonde curls fell to the child’s shoulders. She had on nothing but a dirty pink shirt. Brian felt his insides twist. He was staring at his own child. However, he soon realized the child was too young to have sprouted from his last intimate encounter with Katie.
“Anna,” said a stern, young voice from inside. Brian saw an arm wrap around the child’s chest and lift her up before another hand pulled open the door completely.
Katie swung the child onto her hip as a smile blossomed over her face. Her slim figure had filled out slightly. She had become softer, more womanly, an adult, a mother.
“Brian,” she said sweetly as she leaned in to hug him. The action brought the child’s face almost directly into Brian’s. She turned away and pressed her nose into her mother’s shirt. “Come in, come in,” Katie said.
Brian stepped into the house. It was uncomfortably warm. A dry heat like they had the furnace on in the middle of summer. The homey smell of baked goods filled the space along with clean smell of dryer sheets. Brian shut the door behind him as Katie turned to face him once again.
“This is Anna,” Katie said, softy pressing her forehead against the child’s. Anna’s blue eyes sparkled as she stared shyly at Brian, like she was sizing him up, as if she was asking if he was fit enough to care for her. “Anna came along about two years ago. My little Anna-ccident.”
Brian smiled, brought a single finger up to the child’s cheek, and stroked the soft skin once. “Hi, Anna.” Katie placed her down on her little feet, and she scurried away.
Katie had made molasses cookies. She stood at the stove scraping the dark golden discs onto a cooling rack. Brian walked tentatively around the house gazing at everything. A strange feeling washed over him, a familiarity doused with change. Something familiar that could never go back into what it used to be. The child, a life Katie had without him. Yet there she was, all the same, in the unchanged house.
As Brian sat down at the small dinner table, he looked out into the backyard through a dusty window screen next to him. A fire glowed in the center of it. Licks of flames shot from an old, metal barrel. The glowing branches and logs flickered in the heat. Through the flames, from the other side of the fire, Brian saw Dave. He sat in an old fold out chair. A beer in his hand like it was a permanent fixture. He was still skinny, a little worse for wear perhaps, the way age slowly pulls at one’s cheeks and undereye bags. The flames seemed to envelope his still form, as though he were a burning effigy stuck down into the fiery barrel. His graying mustache pulled up into a small smile, and he raised his beer-less hand in greeting. Brian waved back through the window.
The cookies were plated and Katie and Brian’s slow, awkward conversation began. What has the other been doing? How many boyfriends and girlfriends have you had? Go to school? Any kids? The last question had an obvious answer.
Their voices interwound. They remembered the other’s pauses, their vocal tags. Small quirks the other had. The cookies offered peaceful silence amid chewing when the words ran out. Anna sat at the table with them holding a single cookie. It looked massive in her small hands. Crumbs stuck to her cheeks. With the back of his fingers, Brian brushed them off as if he had done it thousands of times before.
The door leading to backyard opened. Dave stepped inside and made his way to the table. “Smelled them cookies from out there,” he said as he picked one up between a dirty thumb and finger. He mashed the cookie between his toothless gums, a glass of milk softening the food.
In the warm silence Brian felt solidly planted. A root began to sprout from him that drew him down to the spot. It was a pleasant feeling for him, and he sighed, the sweet taste of the cookies lingering in his mouth.
The silence ended when the front door flew open and crashed against the wall. The group at the table jumped at the sound. Anna dropped her cookie to the floor as Katie’s mother bounded across the living room carpet, an envelope in hand. She stopped at the table directly next to Brian. No greeting was given to him.
“You got cancer again?” she barked. Dave’s eyes dropped to the table top. He chewed the last of the cookie in his mouth and swallowed as his wife continued. “Skin cancer. From mowing those lawns without sunscreen. Got the letter right here from the doctor saying what it is. How long have you known?”
Dave sat motionless for a moment, then mumbled like a tired dog. “While.”
Katie’s mother shrieked cancer treatments and the cost of each. She knew all about cancer. Saw her mother go through it. Had to pay it off with the life insurance after she died.
The screaming continued next to Brian’s ear. Anna started crying, and soon the room was filled with noise like it was that day long ago. It vibrated down deep into Brian’s ear. Katie began shrieking. She sounded like her mother. Their voices clashed and merged like two hogs screaming into the night. Dave sat silently chewing at something in his mouth. Brian stood up, holding his hands out in front of him. The words he tried to say fell on ears too swamped with noise to notice his voice.
Brian saw an opportune moment to slide away from the chaos when Katie’s mother threw the plate of cookies across the room, shattering the plate into pieces. Tears streamed down her face. Katie caught Brian’s eyes, and she nodded quickly, almost undetectably.
What was she saying? Brian thought. What question was she answering? Brian had many in his head: Is this normal? Are you okay? Can I leave? Should we get together again? In any case, yes seemed like a decent answer.
Brian got back in his truck. The humid air had cooled slightly. It clung to his exposed skin. Through the night noises, he could hear the sounds inside. Over the roar of his truck, he still heard it. As he pulled away, down the gravel drive that kicked up dust like it always did, he looked in his review mirror. Little Anna stood in the doorway, her eyes following his retreating tail lights.
The porchlight was still on. Brian expected it to go dark like the last time he drove away from the shouting family, but it glowed on, cutting through the dark.