He had avoided those back country roads for the last ten years.
The surrounding area had grown more commercialized since then, and there was now a highway that bypassed all the traffic lights. The back roads were now used only by local farmers and the kids who attended the high school where he’d graduated twelve years prior. Go Warriors. He could still smell the lingering perfume of almonds and cherries and lemons from the ubiquitous orchards of that region, the scents of summer in Central California.
Why he’d returned tonight he couldn’t exactly say. He and Amy were fighting again. After two years of trying unsuccessfully for a child, it was hard to remember the other reasons why they stayed together. Raising a family had been their common goal after he’d established his firm as a civil litigation attorney, and she was able to quit her job managing the restaurant and focus on her true passion, which was painting. The problem, the doctor deduced, was the incompatibility of their blood types. They tried using a donor, but her body had rejected the first two attempts. Now she was afraid to try again, and he was afraid of what would happen if she didn’t. Resentments materialized as dreams withered. He would look at their photographs on the wall- the wedding in her father’s church, the anniversary trip to Hong Kong, the look on her face when he surprised her with their dog Jackson on Christmas- and he knew he loved her. He simply wondered when that had ceased to be enough.
There were days when he thought he might be cursed because of what he’d done back then. He had been twenty- just a kid. How could he have known that the price of his sins would become a lingering debt? It wasn’t her he couldn’t forgive. It was himself.
When the arguments became more common than the teasing, the laughing, the sharing, his thoughts would drift from his wife to the girl he had loved before. Melody. The only other girl, as far as love was concerned. And she’d been the first. Hers was the memory that haunted him long after she’d stopped loving him.
Yesterday his heart had nearly stopped when he was on his ride home from work, and he was paused at a stoplight downtown in a double-lane. The five o’clock sun had reflected off the hood of a red Cabriolet as it pulled up beside him, catching his eye. He instantly stopped breathing. The ragtop was down, and behind the wheel was a girl with shortly cropped yellow hair, blown wild from the wind. She threw a cursory glance towards him, her eyes green as summer, and for a second he swore it was her.
The lights changed and she pulled ahead, leaving him staring after her. But of course it wasn’t her. That girl looked like Melody when Melody was eighteen. Surely ten years would have made a difference. Perhaps her hair would have grown, or perhaps she would have stopped bleaching it. Perhaps her skin would be paler, or she would have put on weight, or her face would have grown thinner and more defined.
When he got home his wife called to him from her studio.
“Yeah, Amy. It’s me.”
She didn’t come out, and he didn’t go in. They ate dinner separately, and when he crawled into bed beside her that night, she was tense. It had taken her weeks to find the courage to bring up the subject of having children again, but she was done putting it off. She told him she’d been thinking about it. More than that, actually. She’d been researching alternatives for hours a day. She couldn’t put her body through one more failed pregnancy. Something within her was broken.
“There are other options,” she told him.
Options. Options. He’d said those words before. Long ago, in the driver’s seat of Melody’s red Cabriolet.
Amy could see that her husband’s mind was elsewhere. He had trouble keeping up with what she was saying, and she kept calling him back. “Adam? Adam, are you listening? Did you hear what I said?”
Did you hear what I said?
“We could adopt,” she told him. Implored him.
There are options. We could put it up for adoption. There are couples out there who want babies and can’t have them.
If he had known then what he knew now… that he would eventually be a part of one of those couples…
He placed his hands over his face.
“I can’t talk about this right now, Amy.”
She rolled over onto her side, back to him, but she did not stay there. Instead she slid off the bed, pulling the top coverlet with her. She drifted quietly from the bedroom and made her way to what would have been the baby’s room, had there ever been a baby. It was not uncommon for her to spend the night in there. The first time she’d done this, he had stormed after her, insisting she not torture herself, insisting she come back to him. He had been so afraid… so afraid of losing her to the ghost of a possibility, when he was real.
He didn’t follow her tonight. Instead he lay awake, not thinking of Amy, but thinking of the girl in the red Cabriolet. At two in the morning he dressed and left the house, not bothering to wake his wife. He drove past town, towards the orchards and groves and roads he had spent the last decade trying to forget. Though the city had grown, the agricultural outskirts had remained unchanged. When he rolled the windows down he could smell the manure in the pastures and the dew that had settled on the dirt and fruit and trees. He picked up speed and turned off the radio, and the rush of wind through the windows echoed the rush of adrenaline through his veins as he sped through every stoplight. Melody was with him then, and he was ten years younger, and she was screaming, “Don’t stop, Adam! Don’t stop!” They were flying through the night, just the two of them, and it was May, and she was eighteen, and he had never felt more alive.
He had never noticed her before. They had gone to school together, but he was two years her senior and their schedules had nothing in common. He was an AP student and a violinist in the orchestra. She was in drama and was barely making C’s in everything but English, her best subject. She caught his attention one day as they were driving, when he was behind her red ragtop in his father’s GMC. He was amused by the way her short blonde hair whipped about her face in the open air, and when they came to a stop sign he saw her profile as she changed the radio station. He barely recognized her, but he knew he’d seen her somewhere.
A few miles down the road, she pulled off at a fruit stand, and it was then that he remembered. She had been in the school play his senior year. Her hair had been longer, and a much darker blonde, almost brunette. But she had done an impressive job in the role, and now he wondered why he’d never told her.
He pulled in beside her, but she had already gotten out of her car and was walking away.
“Hey!” he called after her.
She turned, her hair sticking up in all directions, a pair of gold aviators shielding her eyes. She was wearing a little sundress and flip flops, and she had on the largest earrings he had ever seen.
She furrowed her brow.
“Yeah?” She was on the defensive, and he knew she didn’t recognize him at all.
He approached her, but couldn’t think of what to say. She pushed her sunglasses on top of her head, and the brightness of her green eyes was startling. He fumbled for words.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“Um.” Damn, she was beautiful. That short hair really worked for her. “I was just wondering… are you selling your car?”
“No,” she said. “Do you see a For Sale sign? I’m not selling my car.”
“Oh,” he breathed. He looked at the car, then back at her. “It’s a great car.”
She stared at him. “I know.”
“I know you. I mean, kinda. I think we went to school together.”
She scrunched up her eyes. “You’re at Oak Valley?”
“I was. I graduated two years ago.”
“Then you’re older than me. I graduate next month.” She appraised him. “I don’t recognize you. You weren’t in drama class, were you?”
“No, but I saw you in Les Mis. You played Fantine, right?”
She looked pleased. “Yeah, I did. Good memory.”
“You did a great job. Your voice… I remember your voice. Are you doing anything with that?”
“You mean, singing?”
She looked away. “Nah.”
“You’re not gonna go to college?”
She shook her head. “I can’t go to college. Besides, I’m not cut out for it. School’s just not my thing. But what about you? What are you doing? Are you working somewhere? I don’t even know your name.”
He laughed. “So many questions. Okay, um, what about me? I play violin, and I just got my associates at the community college. No job, but I’m looking, and I’m trying to get into law school. And my name is Adam.”
He stuck out his hand, and she shook it. Her fingernails were chipped and painted bright blue.
“Nice to meet you,” she smiled.
“And you’re… Fantine?” he said. He shook his head and laughed embarrassedly. “Sorry, I can’t remember your name. In fact I’m not sure I ever knew it.”
She waved her hand dramatically through the air. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but Fantine is dead. I’m Melody.”
He looked at her sideways. “Melody? Really?”
“That’s kind of perfect, you know. Considering.”
“What, that I sing?”
“Yeah. I just think that’s cool. Your parents must have had some sort of premonition or something.”
“Ah.” He could tell she was uncomfortable by the way she looked down at her feet.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to-“
But she waved him off. “No, it’s okay. Dad’s been in prison since I was little and my mom… she’s not really all there. She’s kind of a crack whore. So the whole name thing is probably just a coincidence.” She glanced up at him and saw the concern on his face. “I don’t know why I just told you all that. I’m sorry. Mom and I live with Grandma, who pretty much raised me, and I think I turned out all right. So it’s fine.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I think you turned out all right, too.”
She loved this. “Oh my god! I’m talking about my grandma and you’re flirting with me!”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“No.” She smiled, and her eyes caught and held his.
“So,” he ran a hand through his hair, then gestured towards the fruit stand, “you in the market for something in particular?”
They fell into step with each other as they began perusing the heaping bins of produce.
“Not really,” she said. “Maybe a little bit of everything.”
When she was finished shopping he helped carry her bags to her car.
“Do you like honey?” he asked her.
“I bought you these.” He produced an array of little brightly colored tubes. “They’re filled with honey. I used to love them as a kid.”
Her eyes seemed to dance.
“That’s so…” She made a show of searching for the right word. “Sweet.”
Her lips were already curling upwards over her little joke.
“Very punny,” Adam said.
“I thought so,” she shrugged, amused with herself. “Hey, do you wanna go for a drive?”
“I don’t know. Anywhere. Everywhere. Just wherever the road takes us.”
They took her car. She wanted to drive, to show him all her favorite places.
“I do this sometimes,” she told him. “When I’m freaking out, or overwhelmed, or even just crazy happy, I put the top down and I just go. Just by myself. I love it. I love the freedom. Sometimes it’s the only thing that makes sense.”
They passed through orchards and pastures until they came to a road that followed along a river. Long, white eucalyptus trees towered over them, and the air smelled sweet. The surrounding hills rippled in the late spring breeze. She flipped on the radio and sang along to the Beach Boys, and though he was not a fan, he thought they had never sounded so good.
Eventually, she pulled off on a gravel road that led along an orange grove. She dug into one of the bags from the fruit stand and pulled out two enormous peaches. Together they ate and walked beneath the trees, wiping away the juice that dripped over their chins. The sounds of civilization were nonexistent in that place. There was only the breeze as it rustled the leaves, and the soft give of earth beneath their feet, and the chatter of birds overhead, and the flutter of insects here and there. They walked companionably but in silence, and eventually she began to sing softly.
He recognized the song from the play. I dreamed a dream in time gone by… Her voice was sweet and high and clear, and when he heard it he thought of crystal and fresh snow, of mountains and tall trees and meadows. Everything about her, all that could and could not be seen, was beautiful.
“This,” she said eventually, looking around, “is my very favorite place.”
He didn’t take his eyes off of her when he said, “I think it’s becoming mine, too.”
In the following weeks they drove everywhere in that red ragtop. To the mountains, to the beach, to lakes and rivers, to dates in town and dates in the country. But mostly they returned to their first drive together, recreating it in sunlight, or at dawn, or at sunset, or beneath the stars. One night she called him crying, and she said that she was on her way to him. She picked him up, but at the sight of her tears he insisted on driving. “Drive fast,” she told him. “I want to feel like I’m flying away.”
The ragtop was down, and she stood on the passenger side and threw her head back with her arms in the air. “Don’t stop!” she shouted as the wind dried her tears.
When they reached the grove they did not leave the vehicle. Instead he pulled her into the backseat and held her. He stroked her hair and asked her what was the matter.
“He touched me,” she said.
He felt a jolt go through him.
“Who?” he asked.
“My mom’s boyfriend. He thought I was sleeping, and he touched me, and I punched him.”
“You punched him?”
She sniffled as she nodded. “I punched him in the throat, and I told him if he comes near me again I will shoot him. I have my daddy’s gun and I swear to God, I’ll do it.”
Her tears began to flow again.
“I keep thinking, how dare he?” she went on. “I don’t fucking belong to him. I belong to you, Adam.” She said it over and over again as he kissed her tears. “I’m yours, I’m yours, I’m yours.”
She took his hand and put it on the soft place on her chest where she had been touched. She wanted to burn away the memory with the warmth of Adam’s palm, to replace what had been unwanted with what was most desired. He continued to kiss her, to touch her, to love her, and when she felt him hesitate she clung to him and whispered, “Please, don’t stop.”
Now his memories of her all returned to that road, to that grove, to that red ragtop. To her kitten eyes and her crazy hair and her candy apple red lips. He remembered the intense way she would look into his eyes, the feel of her hands as they cupped his face when she begged him to love her forever. He remembered the way she drove with her left hand while holding his with her right, the way her arm was covered in Sharpie from knuckle to bicep. “I’m designing tattoos,” she told him. “I use my arm for practice.” He remembered the way she cried when he bought her flowers for the first time. “I’ve always thought buying flowers was so pointless because, you know, they just die,” she’d said. “But that’s the point, I guess, isn’t it? The fact that they’re so temporary is what makes them so precious.” He remembered holding her in the backseat, the way her skin felt on his, the way she kicked her flip flops over the side of the car and into the dirt. He could still taste the oranges they picked, the sweat on her shoulder, the beer on her tongue.
As he drove, a decade later, he passed the fruit stand where they had first spoken. It had long been boarded up, a dilapidated canvas for graffiti. He accelerated, his grip tightening on the steering wheel.
They had been sitting barefoot by the river on the back of her Cabriolet the day he remembered as the day summer began to fade. A cool breeze had begun to blow, and the chill of the morning took a few extra hours to burn off. She had grown quiet, and he had wondered why.
“Is it your mom’s boyfriend?” he asked.
She shook her head. “He doesn’t come around anymore.”
He studied her, noting the way she avoided his gaze. When she looked up at the sky he could see the clouds reflecting in her eyes.
She was quiet so long he prompted her again.
“What’s wrong, Melody?”
She chewed her lip as she kicked her heel against the bumper. It made a soft thumping noise.
“I think I’m pregnant,” she said.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
“You think?” he asked, his head going fuzzy.
She shook her head. “No. I know. I went to the clinic.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“I had to be sure.”
“I would have gone with you.”
“I didn’t want you to.”
He ran his hands through his hair.
“It’s not that big a deal,” she murmured. There was no conviction in her voice and he knew she was terrified.
We are going to have a baby.
“I’m not going to have it,” she said. She glanced sideways at him, gauging his reaction.
“It’s not that big a deal,” she said again. She was trying to convince herself. “I’ve already made up my mind.”
He was speechless.
I am going to be a father.
“Did you hear what I said?” she asked.
“We have to talk about this, Melody.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. It was a mistake, and I’ll take care of it. I’m not even asking you for money. I’m just telling you because I thought you should know.”
“Jesus, Melody, it’s a baby. There are other options.”
“Options? What other options? It’s my body, Adam. It’s my life. I’m not ready to share it with anyone but you.” Her eyes softened, and her voice broke. “I don’t even know if I want kids. Who would, in a shitty world like this?”
“We could put it up for adoption. There are couples out there who want babies and can’t have them.”
She stared straight ahead.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
“I told you,” she spoke low, “there’s nothing to talk about. I’ve made up my mind.”
For a moment, neither of them spoke. Adam slipped off the back of the car and walked to the edge of the water. His face had gone hot, and he rubbed it with his hands.
“I would never ask you to do something like this,” he told her. “We can figure this out together.”
She didn’t like the distance between them, so she followed him to the riverbank but did not touch him.
“I am sorry,” she whispered. “I just know myself, and I know I can’t do this. Maybe there are options for other people, but there aren’t other options for me.”
He turned to face her and took her in his arms.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
To her. To the baby.
She buried her face in his chest.
“Please don’t stop loving me,” she begged him.
And he cried.
He picked her up from her house the morning of her appointment. When he pulled in the drive he saw the curtains move in the window beside the front porch and knew it was her mother. She did not come out, did not want to meet him, did not ask where he was taking her daughter.
Do you know? he wondered. Would you care?
He couldn’t sit in the waiting area while Melody had the procedure done. Instead he went outside and vomited, then walked behind the building and paced. He didn’t want anyone to see his face. He was sure they would know.
Afterwards, she emerged pale as winter. She had left any remnant of summer in that room and walked away, and when he tried to talk to her she’d gone cold. She didn’t want to talk about it, she said. She wanted to go home and go to bed, she said. He said he loved her. She said nothing.
Why didn’t you try to stop me? he could hear her asking. And he hated himself for having no answer.
It was three a.m. when he pulled onto the lane beside the orange grove. The place had hardly changed in the last ten years, though one of the trees along the edge had been cut down the year after the last day he saw her. She had asked him to meet her there, and when he pulled up in his father’s truck he saw her sitting in the backseat of the red ragtop. He climbed in beside her, but when she did not look at him he knew why she had asked him to come. The leaves were falling, and she had stopped loving him.
Now there was a little wooden cross in the place where her Cabriolet had been parked that day, the place where she had crashed into the tree twelve months later. A million times he had wondered if she’d done it on purpose. But now that he was there he knew it had been a mistake. Melody had been drunk, and Melody had always driven too fast, and Melody had tried to make that turn like she had done so many times before; but between the alcohol and the gravel and the speed she had lost control and become the ghost of a girl he had loved and lost forever.
He stepped out into the night and walked through the grove. The moon broke through the branches of the trees, illuminating his path. He could imagine her here, imagine her face glowing white as he chased her through the wooded lanes and she looked over her shoulder, laughing. He could imagine her freedom, and her innocence, and her beauty, and her vivacity. All that she had been, all that he had loved, all he had never stopped loving. He sank against an orange tree and he cried for her, and he cried for his wife, and he cried for all the children he had not been strong enough to save. Could he not give life? Could he only take it away?
In the morning when dawn brushed the sky with a burst of orange, he stirred from his bed of earth and fallen leaves. The birds were singing, and the insects where buzzing, and a breeze was rustling the branches overhead. He could feel the stirrings of early summer, and in that moment he knew what he wanted, and he knew what he must do.
He kissed his fingertips and touched the earth in a gesture of goodbye. “I never stopped,” he whispered. Then he pulled the phone from his pocket and dialed his wife’s number.
“Adam?” she murmured into the phone. She was hesitant; frightened of what he had called to say. I’m leaving you or I can’t do this anymore or I’m seeing someone else. “Are you okay?”
He imagined her standing at the kitchen island, one hand wrapped around a mug of coffee, her hair still unkempt from sleep. This was his favorite Amy: Amy with no makeup, Amy with bed hair, Amy untouched and unspoiled. His wife, the dreamer, the artist. Amy the resilient. Amy the unbroken. This was how he saw her, how he had always seen her, and his eyes welled at the sound of her voice.
“Yeah, baby,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I’m coming home, and I’m ready to talk about those other options.”