“It’s all history with you,” she said. It was an accusation.
“I just wondered if you remembered trying it,” he said.
They were driving west on Green away from the university, past Maza, the Mexican restaurant where they’d tried huitlacoche for the first time, just before they’d learned for sure she was pregnant. That was thirteen months ago. Back in April Maza went out of business, and now it was a smoothie bar, but they’d never been.
“Sort of,” she said. “I guess. I don’t know. My memory doesn’t work with those things the way yours does.” She put her arm on the door frame and pressed her shoulder against the cold of the window, and the next word came out like an epithet: “History.”
“I like history,” he said. He had the feeling they’d started this argument a few times before, but never gotten quite this far.
“There’s no future in it,” she said.
“I don’t know.” He resisted the urge to quote Santayana, about repeating the past. It wouldn’t help his case, whatever that might be. He drifted into the left turn lane at the corner of Green and Neil.
“I don’t know either,” she said. “I don’t know what to do with this history. It’s everywhere.”
That corner had been undeveloped when they came to town for graduate school, except for the pharmacy on the southwest corner. At the time, ground had just been broken on a strip mall on the diagonal, and now it played host to a pizza place and a wing joint and a liquor store. The liquor store used to be a Hollywood Video, but the December before it had gone the way of all video stores. They’d bought the first three seasons of The Wire at the going-out-of-business sale, and binge-watched them in a single weekend over Christmas break. He had wondered out loud, but mostly in jest, if it was a good idea to watch such a show with the kid listening in, and looked at the front of her sweater where the bulge would someday be.
She had taken his hand and placed it on her belly and said “give us a kick if you object,” but it was far too early for anything to kick. “It doesn’t even have ears yet,” she had said, laughing. “Besides, we’ve got a future plenty full of purple dinosaurs and anthropomorphic cars and talking puppies. Let’s enjoy The Wire while we can.”
When the video store closed they didn’t even take down the “Hollywood” sign. They just put up a red square sign next to it with the word “Liquors.” Hollywood Liquors.
“You remember when we went to Italy?” he said as he settled into the right-hand lane going south on Neil.
She rolled her head away from the window with a stunted sigh, and then leaned against the door again.
“I know,” he said. “I know, but I’m not doing that. I don’t mean to. I’m doing something different.”
He took a deep breath to gather his thoughts and try a new approach, but nothing came to him, and they were silent for a while. He turned right onto Windsor and then past the corner of Windsor and Prospect, which was his favorite corner on his daily run. He’d taken up running in March, because he was desperate for something to improve his conditioning—physical, mental, emotional. Running helped.
One day in late May he turned this very corner and as he ran past the squat lavender bushes planted behind the sidewalk they erupted with Monarch butterflies, passing through on their way back up from Mexico. There were hundreds of them, thousands maybe, startled by his arrival, and they swarmed around him and flew beside him for nearly half a mile as he ran. It felt surreal, like an animated sequence in the midst of a mundane life, and he wondered to himself if they might carry something of him away.
Monarch butterflies. They migrate every year but none of them live to complete the round trip. He remembered his first encounter with them as a young child on a family trip to Canada. There were hordes of them flying past the highway—so many that it was impossible not to drive into them. His sister and he were horrified. “Stop killing the butterflies!” they’d say to his father behind the wheel. “I’m trying!” his father would say—playfully at first, but as they persisted he grew defensive and yelled at them to shut up and so they’d driven several miles with only the occasional soft thud of butterfly on glass to punctuate the silence.
The monarchs born in late summer in the northern states and Canada, he remembered now, travel south to Florida, to Mexico, to the southern California coast. They hibernate, wake up, mate, and die. Their eggs hatch and their caterpillar children form their chrysalis and turn into butterflies and mate and lay eggs and die—all in a matter of weeks. They don’t even make it all the way home. None of them do. It takes four generations to return, and then the fifth is born to make the long journey back to their winter home in the south. Five generations to make one round trip. They don’t do it out of memory. Something else is at work.
Another deep breath. “What I mean is,” he let the breath out. “That tour guide, at Padua, I think. The university. She was asking everyone where they were from, and then she’d tell them the names of some famous early Modern thinker from their country who had studied at the school.”
“Okay,” she said.
“We said we were from the States, and she said ‘Too young. You don’t have that kind of history.’”
“I remember,” she said. “We’d been married five years then.”
“Of course you do.”
“Anyway,” he said. “I thought it would be cool, then, to have history. But what can you do? I mean, it was fine as a tourist.”
“Sure. It’s why we were there.”
“But living with it,” he said. “Every day, I mean. Like a nosy parent or a needy child.”
Three seconds of silence, suspended animation, as they floated through a yellow light at Galen Drive, and the last three words hung in the air like vapor. He wished each of those words could thud into the window like a butterfly.
Finally she nodded. “And the subway in Rome.”
“What about it?”
“How they couldn’t expand it. It couldn’t grow. They couldn’t dig.”
“Every time they’d dig they’d discover some new treasure of our global goddamned heritage. And they’d have to suspend construction and call in the archaeologists and figure out what it all meant.”
“I saw a story in the newspaper just this summer,” he said, and his voice got quick with the lighter memory. He was happy to have something to talk about as they drove past Folsom’s Bakery. “The story was about that exact thing happening. They were digging for a new line and came across a major find. Some burned-out building from the third century. The headline called it a ‘New Pompeii.’”
They had gone to Folsom’s for soup and fresh bread every Wednesday morning after the appointments with Dr. Hallbeck. And then two blocks past Folsom’s, of course, was Hallbeck’s office, where they’d first seen the heartbeat in November and then eventually found vaguely recognizable shapes in the ultrasound and then, on the third Wednesday in January, watched the nurse struggle to find the heartbeat and then wheel in a new machine to try, and then get the doctor and finally leave the room, her shoulders faintly slumped, so Dr. Hallbeck could talk to the couple privately. She gave the news gently but professionally, and Tina leaned her head over against his right shoulder and wept quietly. They said nothing out loud. He put his arm around her and in doing so thought of himself as keeping the parts of her in place. She was perfectly still but for the thumb of her left hand, resting against his thigh, which she moved slowly and rhythmically along the tip of each separate finger in turn.
Folsom’s Bakery was still in business, but they hadn’t been back since.
“See?” she said. “Digging is dangerous. No telling what you could find. No telling what you could destroy.”
“I mean, I know this kind of thing has happened before with the subway,” he said. “You’d think they’d learn by now.”
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” she said.
He didn’t mean to look at her, but his head turned just the same, out of reflex as much as anything, when he heard the Santayana quote. She didn’t return his look, but her head quivered towards him ever-so-slightly and then settled back against the window. He had seen her eyes dart in his direction, and he saw that she tilted the corner of her mouth upwards just enough for him to notice.
This is a thing she does, a way she has of playfully looking at him without really looking at him, like she wants him to know that she knows something, but she doesn’t want to say so directly. This is part of a language that they speak—a language which has evolved between the two of them alone. This is a language of knowing more about the other than would be courteous or even bearable to admit out loud. This is a language borne of a shared past, but which also has a future tense. This is the language by which she’d known he had stifled an impulse to quote Santayana.
And this language is how he knew, as they waited now in the turning lane for oncoming traffic to clear so that he could turn into their parking lot, that she wouldn’t speak again until the car was stopped and he had opened his door and gotten out. It was a cold day, like that day in January, and gray. And the parking lot was half full, as it had been when they came home, and the street lamps that lit the lot were on, and the one in the far corner still flickering, as it had been. There were probably a thousand things that were different, but all he noticed were things that were the same. And he knew her head would stay tilted against the window as it had on that day in January, and that there was no solace he could give.
And he would think now, this time, of a swarm of butterflies, carrying some heavy piece of him away, as he opened the door to get out. And what would she think about, to finally carry her through her door? He only knew that she would breathe in and breathe out, rubbing the tip of her left thumb along each finger of her hand for some time—a language he recognized but could not speak or fully comprehend. And then she, too, would open her door and emerge.
© Jason Vredenburg
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild. Read Jason’s interview]