Indiana, then, was not to blame. Without question the cold of January was not the kindest of greetings as Muriel’s car, carrying them both and therefore becoming their car, pulled into the dark of the apartment complex parking lot the late night they arrived and headed inside, surrendering to sleep and what was still a genuine excitement about the future. The next morning she contentedly wondered, with a half-asleep mind over coffee as August began steady unpacking of the car, at the more concrete notion of this arrangement. Or more plainly stated because she knew he would know, “this” was “forever.” Much of the decision to begin again the mutual trek toward forever was his escape from his mother, a case he hadn’t needed to plead with her as Muriel vocalized her loathing of the woman by dishing out sobriquets for her in practice until the right one settled. Cunt. She thought his mother a cunt until they discovered a book so titled that actually returned a needed power to the word, an ownership they agreed did not belong to the woman left behind with ailing cats in Alabama. But that was a shoulder shrug in comparison to all else. The distance. Closing the gap between them. Oh, now the work can start again. No more of this talk of death, silly boy. And then him, I can’t wait to watch you shine in the program, Creature! Don’t mind me. I’ll be back in my room drinking scotch and writing poems in the frigid cold of Indiana. I’m redefined! We’re together again. We’re finally home. All in their exchanged smiles, statements unspoken such as We’ve finally made it! rather than what was likely more appropriate, What lessons are we NOT learning, if not a more basic and over-arching, What the fuck are we doing?
As a snowball might add to itself in a violent roll down a mountain, increasing in size and the threat to destroy indiscriminately, so does the moment of recognition that something is not right—when nothing is done about it—seize itself, tumbling over the present moment of ignorance into a mauled bi-product of hindsight. Indiana was not to blame, nor were cars in the adjacent parking lot sliding over the ice-slicked terrain of its usual winter, nor the neighbors overhead yelling, no, shrieking at one another in the late hours as August stood on top of the toilet in the hall bathroom and held a voice recorder to the ceiling vent through which the argument about who-knows-what was loudest and easily documented for the landlord. It wasn’t the disappointment, not real disappointment, at professors he met who were to some extent enthusiastic but what he instantly regarded as underdeveloped as writers. Not completely talentless, but certainly not what he wanted or needed out of academic workshops. “I don’t want to be taught to not be good,” he had complained to Muriel over a dinner. And she had introduced him after much research to graduate students she’d hunted down for his benefit so he could learn more about the program he was soon to join, graduate students who collected at a pub to meet him and discuss the future, students who were already acting like teachers, but snotty, condescending teachers missing the point entirely of the academy as August saw it, three young men almost too amazed at themselves for existing in front of a cold beer as the world needed them and their minds so desperately. That didn’t disappoint him inasmuch as it infuriated him and turned him off. The saving grace to his being there, then, was Muriel, a rescue that could not sustain itself because, try as she might—and he did not want her to try—she had her own girlfriend at this point, her own classes to take and teach, and the more she attempted additionally to manage the two of them the more he felt a nuisance, a pest and a failure.
The one redemption was their downtown poetry readings. August even got laid a few times, mainly for something to snicker about later with Muriel when they were in a library looking for jazz CDs to take home and pirate. Again, sex meant little beyond an unhealthy sense of infamy he felt it had given him back home. How many in one night, Coop? But not once did curiosity surface to question that one thing, that perhaps this one public expression of their old life together was enough to keep him there. Her efforts to be that old life for him was crushing her and sent her into a depression he knew his presence caused. Muriel began frequently canceling classes she taught, skipping ones in which she was enrolled just to wallow in bed long hours of the day before spending afternoons on the couch working on a short story she thought could be a book. Anything to attach herself to what they once had that died the minute they were halfway up I-65 North toward Indiana from Mobile. With August’s drinking and sequestering himself in his room when not working across town at a restaurant staffed by fraternity-type jocks always asking him with an aggressive playfulness about “being gay”, when he did come out of the room to smoke cigarettes at the kitchen table—a violation of the lease, but they’d both stopped caring about each other and this was the first manifestation of giving up—he stood over her or across the room from her, never sitting, telling her she was close but essentially never going to get it right, the story, to keep trying, but why try? His attempts at lifting her out of herself were halfhearted and almost nasty because he knew that in order to improve her spirits, her productivity and therefore the quality of her life, he would have to leave. He hated himself for this. So he blamed her.
“I’m renting a car next Friday and going home.”
The way she would later tell the story, before it had fully settled in that they would never speak again, was that she had plainly said, “Okay.” At first, however, she sat looking somewhat stunned by it. But she may also have been calculating her avoidance of displayed relief.
“Why?” She asked after removing her hand from her chin. Muriel managed to avert her gaze at the w from the wall across the room, to August at the h and then back to the wall and the y. During the one syllable it would seem it took no time. The sneak of her eye would not have existed in time. As he remembered it, it was the longest and most searing exposure of her acknowledgement that she had had enough.
Fuck you, he wanted to say.
“Because you lied to me.” He said, instead, lighting another cigarette as he shifted on the smaller couch opposite her.
“How?” She didn’t believe him but still said the question.
“You said our life here would be productive and we would work. I wanted to watch you tear up the department and do these amazing things you’ve set out to do. But all you’ve done this last month is lie around in absolute misery. I have no idea what’s going through your head about your girlfriend who seems to make you unhappy. You’re trying to write so much you’re canceling everything else out in your life and it’s making me unhappy, too. I already work a shitty fucking job trying to kill time until classes start next fall. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do. I just want to go home and get away from this bullshit city. I’m renting a car next Friday and going home.” And this is where he was trying to hurt her. “I’ve been talking to Eva and I can live with her again. So it’s already figured out. I think it’ll be better if I just go home.”
“Okay.” She finally said. Who knows what she was thinking? What she might have meant by the deep breath and exhalation that followed before she spoke again was, All I had to do was pretend to listen to that nonsense and I’m soon free. And then, “Why don’t you just cancel the rental and I’ll drive you? I’ve been homesick lately anyway.”
That was it. The rest of the new arrangement was peppered with unspoken thankfulness. Packing the car was simpler, as it consisted of his things and just a bag for her visit. August had more or less begun the dance of distance, having stretched for it already over nights leading to the drive as he paced the house with a drink in hand, talking out plans with Eva on the phone in front of his roommate. Muriel recognized his place was not there, that they had tried but it hadn’t worked. In the relief of separation comes a momentary glimpse of a love that can change and last because the elements of the old love are fading from sight. Not guaranteed, that it lasts because it changes, but at the moment of such a glimpse it feels real to the point of faith in it. To define themselves individually again without wondering if they were meant to share a future, as they pretended to imagine a life together even if across multiple state lines they got along fine. Even when an exhausted Muriel begged him to help her drive the last hour of the trip and he said No. Nothing matters in the last leg of goodbye. What a fucking asshole, she may have thought. And him, surely, I’m not helping her get rid of me. Each mile marker they passed represented a deeper burial of that resolve to never again unearth itself, a lesson apparent enough to be endured and learned only once.
The better part of a decade later August could count on one hand how many times they’d corresponded since. Of those few exchanges, never were they kind.