Austin

Austin

She stared complacently into the eyes of a creature she had once feared. It was gazing up at her, equally fearless, crouched at her feet and waiting.

“I have nothing for you,” she told it. She held out her empty palms to prove her point. “See? Nothing.”

In response, the baboon scratched its nose and looked towards its mates, who were busily scavenging a nearby safari vehicle whose windows had been left open. A pair of sunglasses was confiscated. A set of headphones.

Tourists, Molly Preston thought, amused. Soon they would rush from the visitors’ center to find their belongings being investigated and prodded by intelligent eyes and razor sharp teeth. They would ask their drivers to retrieve them. The drivers would shake their heads no.

Her husband Peter emerged from the restroom, wiping his wet hands on his khakis. He glanced towards their vehicle to see if their driver had returned, but Molly was alone with the baboon. When the beast spotted Peter approaching, he slunk to all fours and sauntered away. Molly watched him go, though her thoughts were elsewhere.

“He hasn’t come out yet?” Peter asked as he drew nearer. Molly shook her head.

“He’s still signing us in.”

Her husband glanced down at her bare legs, and she immediately felt self-conscious. She hadn’t worn shorts since they moved to Tanzania two years ago. For a woman to show her knees was culturally taboo, but the tourists didn’t know that, or maybe they just didn’t care, so the tourists did it all the time. For once Molly wanted that same freedom. She didn’t want to be the humanitarian in Africa. She just wanted to be the girl from Austin in her cutoff shorts and boots.

It turned out to be the wrong morning to exert her independence, though she would never admit it. At least not to Peter. The air was cooler than she’d expected, and her exposed skin was riddled with gooseflesh.

Peter frowned.

“I wish you hadn’t worn those,” he told her.

“Nobody knows us here, Peter. To them, we’re just ignorant Americans.”

“That doesn’t make it any less offensive.”

“We’re on vacation.”

“You don’t take vacation from cultural sensitivity. Not if you’re trying to make a difference.”

She tried not to let him see her roll her eyes. How many times had she been on the receiving end of this speech?

“I hardly think the elephants will mind,” she said, trying to make light of it.

“You’re going to freeze.”

“I’ll be fine.”

He didn’t respond, but instead climbed into their vehicle and shut the door.

She inhaled deeply, slowly. Though neither of them would say it aloud, they had not only come to the Ngorongoro Crater to escape the bustling metropolis of Arusha, where they lived and worked. They came because after eight years, their marriage was deteriorating, and they needed to see if there was anything left to salvage.

There were no children, for which Molly was grateful. If Peter had his way, they’d have at least one by now. Eighteen months ago he had treated a malnourished newborn who’d been abandoned at their clinic. He had brought her home and together, he and Molly nursed her back to health. Medicinally, they had always made a good team: a pair of ER doctors with degrees from UTSA. Their staff of nurses- mostly Tanzanians, two Canadians, one Kiwi- named the little girl Grace, and while Molly saw the infant as no more than a patient, Peter grew emotionally attached. When he began referring to Grace as our little girl, Molly panicked. She began researching local orphanages and missionaries who could take Grace in. Peter tried to fight for the child, but Molly refused. She wasn’t heartless, she insisted. She just wasn’t ready.

When Grace was six months old, she went to live with a missionary family in Moshi, roughly two hours’ drive from Arusha. Peter refused to take her, so Molly went alone.

Peter still had not forgiven his wife.

When their driver returned, the three of them settled silently into the large vehicle and entered the park. The sun was just breaking the horizon, to which Molly muttered, “Oh thank God.” She was shivering.

Peter was turned towards the window, and Molly wondered if coming here wasn’t a mistake. They had spent a good chunk of their savings on this trip, but they were avoiding each other just as if they were back in Arusha. For the past year- ever since Grace left- Peter and Molly had disintegrated into a couple of doctors who lived and worked together. There was the occasional argument, which no matter its nascent was inevitably routed to the subject of Grace, but mostly there was silence. Screaming loud silence.

As they traversed the rim of the Crater before making their descent, they came across a herd of Cape buffalo, emerging from the brush one by one to leap across the road. The vehicle came to a stop, the creatures moving just beyond the front bumper. The driver had yet to turn off the headlights, and the buffalos’ eyes flashed red as they passed.

Molly gripped her seat and leaned forward.

“In all our time here,” she murmured, “I’ve never seen one.”

Peter said nothing, though he was just as transfixed as she.

Their expectations of Africa had been vastly different. She realized that now, and she could hardly believe it had taken her so long. For Molly, Africa was meant to be a grand adventure. A prolonged vacation, something that would eventually be captured in a photo book to show the kids. “Look what Mommy and Daddy did before you were born.” It was meant to be temporary; just a chapter in the Preston’s Book of Life, before they returned to Texas and settled down like normal people. For Peter, there was no end. Africa was their life. There was little about the Preston’s home and routine in Tanzania that was not recreated to resemble their home and life in Austin. Peter had been a workaholic there and he was a workaholic here. He was saving lives. There was no time for climbing Kilimanjaro, or snorkeling in the Indian Ocean, or hiking along the Great Rift Valley, and there had certainly never been time for safari. As their eight-year anniversary had loomed before them, Molly had made an executive decision and booked their trip without consulting him.

“I’m going on safari,” she had told him once everything was arranged, “and I’d really like you to come with me.”

“And if I don’t?” he’d asked.

“Then I’ll still go.” Her voice caught in her throat, and she chastised herself for the tears that burned behind her eyes. “But I don’t think I’ll be coming back.”

Peter knew he was losing her, which didn’t come as a surprise to him. He had let her go the morning she took Grace to Moshi, and it was only natural she would begin to drift away. She had given him a year. After everything they had shared- the Christmases, the trips to California and Nantucket and Iceland, volunteering in Haiti, the AP classes in high school, the all-nighters at UTSA- she owed him that much. They had been best friends for over half their lives, had realized they loved each other only when faced with the prospect of going their separate ways after graduation. Back then, life made so much more sense when they were together.

But the year after Grace yawned between them like an abyss. Molly was going to leave, Peter knew this. Whether or not he went with her on this last adventure, they were beyond saving. Had he fallen out of love with her? Perhaps. Did he hate her? He thought he had, but not anymore. Now he felt nothing. And that’s how he knew they had died.

He agreed to take this final trip with her not because he thought it would make her stay, but because it was the last concession he was capable of making. He knew there would be no grand reconciliation, no passionate reunion. They were beyond that now. They would see a few giraffes, some elephants, would eat some goat pilau and chipati with beans and chips mayai, drink a dozen or so bottles of Tusker beer, and then they would return to Arusha, where she would pack up her things and leave for good.

He sneaked a glance at her as she stared wide-eyed at the beasts crossing the road. She was a beautiful woman, with long, chestnut-colored hair and vibrant green eyes. And both of them were still young; not yet thirty-one. He briefly wondered if she would find someone else, but the thought made him uncomfortable, so he dismissed it. He told himself it wasn’t because he didn’t wish her every happiness- he did- but because she had been his girl since their senior year of high school. To imagine her with anyone else was… well, difficult. But to imagine her staying? Impossible.

Once the herd of buffalo had passed, they continued their descent into the Crater. Large discolorations across the plains gained clarity and became individual animals, grazing en masse. There were countless zebras, who twitched and barked as the vehicle drove among them. Peter and Molly stood to peer beyond the elevated roof, each claiming opposing sides. The brisk wind whipped Molly’s hair into Peter’s neck, and it stung.

“Can you put your hair up or something?” he asked impatiently.

She reached into the back of the vehicle where she had tossed her straw cowboy hat when the morning was still dark. Now by daylight she saw a wool blanket folded neatly beneath it. She twisted her hair on top of her head and placed the hat over it, pulling it low over her forehead, then shook out the blanket and draped it over her shoulders. When she stood once more, Peter regarded her with an expression akin to amusement.

“You look ridiculous,” he said, and she saw the shadow of a smile.

“I look like me,” she replied proudly. Boots, cutoffs, white tank top, cowboy hat. She had even donned her favorite pair of rhinestone cross earrings, which she never wore in the city lest they be mistaken for real jewels and ripped out of her ears. She had heard of such robberies before. It was why she had not worn her wedding ring in two years.

For a moment Peter was transported to a night during their college days in San Antonio, when she had worn this exact outfit. She had always been unabashedly Texan, while he had spent his childhood in San Francisco and had never in his life owned a pair of Ariats. His family moved to the Texas hill country when he was fourteen, where he met Molly on the first day of high school. Though they had attended several rodeos throughout their teenage years, Molly was never able to convince Peter to dance with her when the bands played. Not till that night- on her twenty-first birthday- when she dragged him to a piano bar on the River Walk, dressed as she was now. They had been smoking Djarum Blacks on the patio when one of the dueling pianists pounded out the opening chords of Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places”. Molly had gasped, tore the cigarillo from Peter’s lips and stomped it out, then dragged him back into the sweaty haze of the bar where she placed one of his hands on her waist and held the other at shoulder height. “This is your birthday present to me,” she had shouted above the music. “You’re gonna learn how to two-step.”

Despite the painful awkwardness of his movements, he had loved the way her smile lit her up in the darkness of the bar. He had loved the feel of her hip moving within the contours of his palm, the way she threw her head back and laughed when he stepped on her foot for the third time. He had loved the way her cross earrings sparkled in the neon light, and the way her hair hung low, tickling his fingertips.

He hadn’t thought of that night in years.

They passed through a herd of wildebeests, and Molly spoke aloud, more to herself than to Peter, “Look how unique they are. I’ve never seen anything like them.” They had the stern face of a bull and the sloped spine of a hyena, but they moved with the grace of a horse. She spotted a mother suckling her calf, and for a moment she suffered an encounter with an old, familiar guilt.

She had tried to love Grace, she had. She had tried to want children, to long for motherhood. Many nights she had lain awake wondering, What the hell is wrong with me? She had loved Peter with a love that bordered on desperation, and she had wanted to give him everything. To be his everything. But to adopt a child for the sake of her husband had seemed an injustice to the child. What if she could never learn to love her as her own? She would have resented Grace. Peter. Herself. So she had done what she felt she had to do.

And now Peter resented her.

His initial anger had not surprised her. She had expected it, had felt she deserved it, and she was prepared to ride it out. Surely he would forgive her someday.

She glanced at him from beneath the brim of her hat. He was crouching to peer out the windshield, and she studied his profile. She remembered the first time she saw him in Algebra 2. He had been one of the only other freshmen in the class, and he was so skinny and quiet and awkward that she immediately wanted to be his friend. Not because she pitied him, but because she knew he would not be pretentious. She had never liked to waste her time earning the favor of those who flaunted their merits.

He was of Scottish descent, with reddish-brown hair that stuck straight up and green eyes that sometimes melted into to a shade of blue, depending on what he wore. He had a strong nose and a fantastic smile; one of those smiles that made you feel as though you’d won a prize each time you saw it, for it was not given generously. She had once taken pride in her ability to make him smile.

He must have felt her eyes on him, for he turned to her.

“Did you bring the camera?” he asked.

She shook her head no, and he looked away.

“Of course,” he muttered, and she heard everything else he would not say aloud.

“I didn’t forget,” she told him. “I just didn’t know if this was a memory we’d want to look back on.”

She watched him, half dreading his response.

He sighed and dropped his eyes, then nodded once.

“I guess you see things differently,” he replied, “when you know you’re only going to see them once.”

They passed a lake, which from a distance appeared to have a film of pink across the surface, but as they drew nearer they realized it was overrun by flamingoes. The occasional wildebeest wandered like a shadow amongst them, and further on towards the edge of the lake there were no flamingoes at all. Instead silvery domes broke the surface of the water, emerging one after the other to reveal a family of hippopotamuses. Their ears twitched and fluttered, and one yawned, giving spectators a view of enormous, uneven tusks.

Molly had been to Africa once as a child. Her father, also a doctor, was a sportsman, and flew his wife and only child to South Africa on a hunting expedition when Molly was ten-years-old. She and her mother had spent long days shopping and swimming at the resort while her father disappeared for a week and a half. His trophies were later shipped back to their house in Austin, where he displayed them proudly. Warthog, springbok, bat-eared fox, zebra, cheetah, impala. Molly could remember looking up at them, their glass eyes staring off into oblivion, and wondering if they silently judged her for letting them perish at the hands of her father. She had never grown comfortable beneath their lifeless gaze, and in her heart had always longed to return to Africa where she might see them thrive once again. When she first came to Tanzania and learned of the Ngorongoro Crater, a conservation area for wildlife, she knew she had to see it for herself.

She fought back tears when a trio of elephants materialized across the plain and made their slow progress towards their vehicle. The Prestons watched in silent reverence as the beasts moved gracefully through the grass, their trunks swaying rhythmically to the cadence of their stride. They passed before the sedentary vehicle, close enough for Molly to see their long eyelashes and the deep grooves of their skin. Their majestic strength and beauty overwhelmed her, and she had to remind herself to breathe.

Peter heard his wife sniffle and turned to see the tears rolling down her cheeks. She had always harbored a fierce love of nature, had never been able to bring herself to point the nose of a rifle outside one of her father’s many deer blinds to take life. For this she was branded a hippy in high school, and it made sense to the other kids that she befriended Peter, the only Californian on campus. She had taken the teasing good-naturedly, as Molly did with most things. It was one of the many reasons Peter had loved her.

But she could also be reckless and impulsive, which drove Peter crazy.

After seeing the elephants, they drove on until they came to a roadblock, where several other safari trucks had come to a standstill. At first they could not see the reason for the delay, but before long it was obvious: a pride of lions had claimed the road for sunbathing. Some lounged on the warm dirt while others moved about languidly, their sharp shoulder blades undulating with every step. One lioness approached Molly’s side of the vehicle and passed close enough to touch. Its golden fur shimmered in the sunlight and it moved with such grace and calm that Molly reached out the open window to touch it. Alarmed, Peter grabbed her arm and yanked it back.

“Ouch!” she cried, tearing her arm from his grip. She rubbed where his fingers had clawed into her flesh. “You hurt me, Peter.”

“That was a stupid thing to do,” he chastised, his eyes flaring green. “What the hell were you thinking?”

Their driver eyed Molly sternly in the rearview mirror.

“You mustn’t disturb the lions, madam,” he told her.

Doubly rebuffed, Molly frowned. To Peter, she whispered, “I’m not a child.”

“A child would have had more sense,” he replied.

“It wasn’t going to hurt me.”

“And you know this, how?”

“I just know.”

He rolled his eyes, which made her seethe. She turned her back to him, effectively communicating that she was no longer going to speak to him. It was just as well, for he had nothing left to say.

The rest of the day passed between them quietly. They pretended to distract themselves with the animals, while each argued with the other silently in their minds.

It was nearly dusk when the driver announced it was time to depart. They rounded a bend in the road but came suddenly to a stop, for sauntering towards them was a mother cheetah and two cubs. At once, Peter and Molly forgot themselves.

Despite the tension between herself and her husband, Molly found herself smiling.

The mother cat continued to approach while her young hung decidedly back. She came right up to the hood of the vehicle, sniffed the air around it, then swung her long legs up and pounced onto the truck. The driver shouted something in Swahili while Peter cried, “Oh my god!” and Molly shrieked.

The cat gazed at them through the windshield, and the driver honked in an attempt to scare her off. Undaunted, she began to paw at the glass, then raised herself up on her haunches to inspect the roof, which was still raised. She stuck her head into the vehicle, and Peter and Molly threw themselves on the floor, not quite knowing what else to do. As the driver shouted and batted at the cat, she opened her mouth in a hiss, her whiskers splaying. She tried to bat back but had trouble maneuvering her paw through the opening and down. She licked her lips once, but soon lost interest, or gave the venture up as lost. She dropped from the windshield, then gave a great leap off the hood, where she landed in a little cloud of dust a few feet from her cubs. They immediately went to her, and together the three of them disappeared into the tall grass beyond the road.

For a long moment no one said anything. Once he had recovered himself, the driver turned in his seat to check on the Prestons, who were only just picking themselves up off the floor.

“Are you all right?” he asked them. They responded with shell-shocked nods. “I have been a guide for fourteen years,” he said. “I get families who say to me, ‘We want to see a hunt! We want to see a kill!’ and then the animals are not hungry and the families leave disappointed because there is no excitement. But the animals do as they please. Something like this has never happened to me before. We are fortunate, eh? No hunts, no kills, but what excitement!”

They drove on, and it was a long time before anyone said anything. The sun hung low over the horizon, draping the sky in a Maasai cloak of red. When Molly Preston’s heartbeat eventually slowed, she felt a strange peace settle over her. Also, she was exhausted. She looked at Peter, who was already looking at her.

“Are you glad you came here, Molly?” he asked. She could barely remember a time when he had called her by name. He had always used an array of endearments: Love, Sweet, Honey, Sugar, Darling, Wife. Even before they started dating, he had called her Austin and she had called him Frisco. Only in the last year had he started calling her Molly.

“Yes,” she replied. And then she took a chance. “I’m glad we came here together.”

He looked away.

Then, “Molly?”

She closed her eyes.

“Yes?”

He found himself regarding her boots. So out of place in a place like this.

“You’re not happy here,” he said. “In Arusha, I mean.”

She sighed. “No, I’m not.”

“But you would stay if I asked you to.”

“Yes. If you wanted me.” She touched her finger where her wedding band should be. “I made a promise to you eight years ago.”

Now he sighed.

“I would release you from that promise,” he murmured, “if you asked me to.”

She shook her head.

“I would never,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.

“And I can’t…” he faltered. Swallowed. “I can’t ask you to stay. Not anymore. Not like this.”

“Like what?”

“With your heart always somewhere else.” Then his face lightened with a wry smile. “I think you need to go on home, Austin.”

She began to cry, but after a long moment she nodded.

“I think so too,” she said.

 

They separated, and she moved back to Austin, where she stayed with her parents while acclimating to life in the US. She laid low at first, getting reacquainted with old friends, taking long walks with her mother, and staying up late with her father when he was on call, drinking coffee and playing RISK. At first she had very limited communication with Peter, but after a few months she emailed him to say she had been hired on at their old hospital. The memories, she told him, were almost overwhelming. She wrote about that Thanksgiving they had pulled double shifts and ordered lasagna from their favorite Italian restaurant, which they ate from Styrofoam containers in the break room. And the elderly man whose wife was an opera singer, and as he lay dying she sang to him, filling the halls of the ER with the most beautiful, most tragic song they had ever heard. And when they stumbled into an unlocked screening room to make love, only to find one of the other doctors and a nurse had beaten them to it.

She didn’t mention a divorce, and neither did he. Instead he kept her abreast of the goings-on at the clinic, and she relayed messages from former patients or old friends she ran into around town, and he told her of an Australian doctor who was new to Arusha and in search of a place to practice. Eight months after their separation, Peter partnered with the Australian and told his wife he was considering a furlough, and while she hoped he would come to Texas, he only mentioned California, where his family had returned five years before. “I’ll give you a call once I’m stateside,” he wrote. She wanted to reply, Come see me, but did not. Instead silence filled the distance between them, and for months she heard nothing more.

She got an apartment and fell into a routine, working long hours and spending much of her leisure time with friends and family. Despite her husband’s silence, she was determined to wait for him, determined not to move on until their future was decided. But she had her moments of weakness, too. Moments when the nights were too long, and the silence was too loud, and the story of her marriage felt as though it belonged to someone else entirely. On one particular night, when she was attending a concert on 6th Street with her brother Ryan and his longtime friend Ben, she felt something akin to hunger. When Ben brushed against her during the show, or bought her a beer and allowed his eyes to linger on hers a second too long, her loneliness swelled to a deep and throbbing ache. That night he invited her over, and she went and, shaking, allowed him to kiss her. It was the first time anyone but Peter had kissed her since she was a teenager, and despite the tenderness of Ben’s lips and the sweetness of his touch, she found herself wishing he was not Ben at all, but that he was Peter. She pulled away from him, and because he was kind and because she was beautiful and broken, he demanded nothing but held her for a long time.

A week later, she was attending a medical seminar in Dallas when her phone lit up with a message from her husband, asking her to call him. She didn’t see it until hours later, following a lecture, and when she did she nearly cried out. She went immediately to her room at the hotel and dialed his number, all the while reminding herself to breathe. But instead of his curt, “This is Peter”, she got his voicemail. At first she heard nothing but her own racing thoughts, but then something in Peter’s receiving message caught her attention. “If this is Austin…” – There was a pause, and Molly gasped – “I still love you.”

She dropped the phone.

I still love you. I still love you.

Doubting what she’d just heard, she tried calling him again, and again she got the voicemail.

Austin, I still love you.

She didn’t leave a message. She couldn’t. She was speechless. After all this time, after everything that had happened, he still loved her? That voicemail was so unlike Peter she might have believed it was a cruel joke but for the sound of his voice and the way he had called her Austin. That nickname from so long ago, the first he had ever given her.

She didn’t know what to think or what to do, so she did nothing. Instead she attended the rest of the seminar, though her thoughts were fixed on Peter. She wondered if he would see that she had tried to call, if he would call her back… but her phone was silent, and after three days, when she finally returned to Austin, she had built up the courage to call again.

He didn’t answer, but had changed his voicemail to say he was gone for the weekend. However, the end of the message was still the same, and Molly dissolved into tears when she heard it again.

Austin, I still love you.

Hardly able to speak, she asked him to call her and left it at that.

On Sunday night, Peter Preston dialed his wife’s number. When he had seen that she called those first couple of times, he had wondered what she’d thought about the voicemail, and feared the worst when she left nothing in response. It was nothing more than he deserved, but still… She needed to know that he hadn’t moved on. That he didn’t want to move on. Not anymore.

He had been angry, yes. And when he had first decided to take furlough and return to the States, he wasn’t entirely certain he would return to his marriage. He would see his parents in California, then meet up with Molly to discuss their future. A divorce wasn’t out of the question. They had been separated for over a year, and he couldn’t bring himself to ask her to come back to Africa with him. He wasn’t even sure he was going back.

Before leaving Tanzania, he went to Moshi to see Grace. The missionaries who had taken her in- a husband and wife named Frank and Claudia- were happy to finally meet the man who had saved Grace’s life, and Peter was amazed at how healthy and fat the baby had grown. He stayed in Moshi for hours, playing with Grace and talking with her guardians. They were good people, genuinely interested in Peter, and when they asked about Molly he found himself confessing his and his wife’s story. He realized he had never spoken of it with anyone, and the more he talked the more difficult it was to stop. When he was finished, he realized his cheeks were wet with tears, and Peter Preston had not cried in years. Embarrassed, he fell silent for several moments.

Then Claudia asked him if he still loved Molly. He had felt numb for so long he had ceased to wonder whether or not he did. But now he looked at Grace, and he saw how well-loved and cared for she was by these people, and a dull ache bloomed inside of him. The ache was not for the daughter he might have had, but for the woman who had changed her diaper and warmed her bottle and woken with her at all hours of the night for the first six months of her life. It was for the memory of his hand on her hip, for the coffee in her dorm at midnight, for the lasagna at Thanksgiving. For the Texas girl on safari, with her long legs and straw hat and dangling earrings. Yes, yes he still loved her. Of course he still loved her.

“Then forgive her,” Claudia told him, and in that moment he knew he already had.

Now the phone clicked over to indicate Molly had answered, and for a few long seconds neither husband nor wife said anything. The silence was pregnant with questions and apologies, explanations and confessions, longing and wonder; but after surrendering to their mutual loss for words, there was nothing left between them but a quiet understanding.

Molly began to grin.

“Hello?” she finally spoke. “This is Austin.”

Her sudden brevity surprised him, so much so that he started to laugh.

“Hey,” he said, expelling a sigh of relief.

Molly waited, then asked, “Peter?”

“Yeah.”

“What happens now?”

“I was wondering…” he hesitated, “if maybe I could take you out and we could talk. Or I could come over.”

“Come over?” she asked. She shook her head. “Come home, baby.”

He smiled, and when he could trust himself to speak he said, “I’m on my way.”

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