Tabula Rasa

The cabin in Elkins is surrounded by patches of forest and rests along the bank of Shaver’s Fork River. The Monongahela National Forest is a hop, skip, and a jump across the way. I love the names of places here. Everything has a history. Places that have been here for centuries, left as untouched as can be, at least by American standards. Buildings that were here over fifty years ago!

West Virginia is old land, and some of the people here look just as ancient, including the owner, who gives me the keys and shows me how to use the shower (cold is hot), the fireplace (give the flu a good shove), and tells me that the fridge sometimes makes a high-pitched sound, but it works.

“That’s just the ghost of Aunt Velma,” she says with a chuckle.

After I unpack, I wander out to the backyard to find firewood, itching for a good blaze. Out back is a porch, complete with a rocking chair and a swing. Two steps down the porch and you’re in the creek. A black rubber tube is beached along the two feet of backyard and is tethered to an old black willow tree. The sun is still out and I can’t help myself. Ignoring the chore ahead of me, I make for the water. In no time my pants are rolled up, my toes are curling into the dirt and grass, and I’m off for a float in my little ship. The river is calm and slow. I watch the clouds pass over me and let the tube drift a bit. Everything is beautiful. The humidity is a soft blanket that rolls over my skin. It’s the first time I feel myself truly relax since leaving Chicago. My body sighs from head to toe. I dip my toes into the warm water, and close my eyes. Just for a bit. But then.

Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer float past me on a shaky raft, thrown together with twine, rope, old floorboards, and a rather large pair of bloomers for a mast. Huck cocks his head at me and cracks a toothy grin. He’s an imp. He tosses something into my lap as Tom paddles up to meet my ship. It’s a piece of toffee, sweating in its paper wrapper. I tear the paper off and pop the candy in my mouth, letting the caramel sweet taste cascade over my tongue and slide down my throat. I open my mouth to thank Huck, but can’t get the words out past the sticky mess. My teeth are glued together. I chew and chew, trying to force the candy out, in, or anywhere. The more I work the toffee over in my mouth, the worse it gets. Panicked, I toss around in the tube and chomp faster, in little jerky movements. Huck grins and waves at me, while Tom steers the raft downriver. My legs and hands wave back at the boys, trying to get them to notice my plight. Huck mistakes my behavior as clownish and cheers me on. I’ve become an entertainer to the children, whose raft is picking up speed and rapidly moving further ahead of me. I kick and splash, working my jaw up and down to loosen the candy that imprisons my voice. Short bursts of air hiss through my nose in huffs and puffs. The boys laugh and scream with joy. A waterfall is fast approaching. They shout with glee and pump their arms up in the air like they are on a roller coaster. My eyes widen in fear as I watch the tiny raft disappear over the edge. The little tube feels very flimsy, and I no longer think of it as a sturdy ship. Trying to scream, I arrive at the edge and clutch the sides of the tube, as though it will save me. The edge of the water is at my feet. The tube dips down slightly into – nothing. I expect the drop to be more of a plummet, but there is nothing to fall towards. Everything is blank. A dark slate.

As the mist from my dreams lifts, I swear that I hear the sound of blues moving through the air. Jerking upright, I notice that I have floated down the creek, but only to the next door neighbor’s lot, where they are barbecuing and listening to music. A bit embarrassed, I hike the tube back to the cabin and tie it up to the tree. I can’t help but feel a bit dejected, as the dream was more action-packed than reality. I opt to venture out, and store the leftovers from The Craw Shack in the tiny kitchen fridge.

“Self,” I lecture my reflection in the bathroom mirror, while pulling arms through my favorite blue dress, “It’s time to cause a little mischief.”

A wink at myself, a dab of perfume in all of my familiar spots, a bit of lipstick and I’m off to find music to dance to, and a cold glass of something.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Trouble is my middle name tonight. Yessir.

Which is how I find myself line-dancing with Dan, the handsome Marine who is home from his last tour of duty. The Cheat River Inn & Pub’s floor is covered in dark blue carpeting and maple wide planks, with railroad ties hammered into them. A green wooden fish grins at its patrons from the prized spot above the bar, and is stamped with the name of the bar on its side, in squiggly letters. A party is singing Sweet Child O’ Mine along to a karaoke machine on the second floor. My dance partner twirls me around the floor in my blue dress. I love the way it swishes around my bare legs, and tell him to twirl me again. The warmth from the two glasses of wine has trickled down my arms to my feet. Dan is grinning down at me, watching me laugh. When I really laugh, I toss my head back, arch my shoulders up and back, and my body radiates. 

Dan knows how to move. His hands are larger than mine. But then all men’s hands are. I’m enjoying the feel of them as they press into my back. He is a patient instructor, and I pick up the steps that he shows me along the way to each song. Our faces are flushed for all sorts of delicious reasons. As a song ends we shift over to a table tucked into the quietest of corners.

“Do you know what I love about this place,” Dan asks me, “being back home?”

I prop my chin up on one hand and lean forward. “I suppose,” I answer him, “It’s all the pretty women in the room?”

Right on cue Dan’s hand grazes over mine and he says, “There’s just one in here tonight.” He shifts in his seat and leans toward me. We match our movements. This is a favorite bit of mine about chemistry.

“Well heck, you better go find her then.” My eyes are twinkling, and I notice his are too. Blue diamonds sparkling back at me. When I am interested in a man, my eyes become two dark moons. I am sure they are now.

Dan looks around the place and gestures with his hands when he talks. “I love that nothing here has changed since I left.”

I nod my head at him. “Your home is supposed to be like that.”

“Everything I’ve been through. All the damage I’ve seen. It feels so temporary over there. Nothing stays the same there.”

There, I learn, is Afghanistan, and Dan was active duty.

“I like the permanence of home though. It’s stable. No surprises. Except for the good ones like you.”

“Well, of course,” I say, “I’m always a good surprise.”

I reach for the water in front of me and glance around the room. The place is taken care of and you can see that love goes into it, but it does look about as old as Dan, who is thirty-four. Further into our conversation, I learn that he is driving to Boston in two days to reunite with old friends. He grew up in a small town in central Maine, spent time in New York in high school, went into business with his father, who owns his own carpentry shop, and then moved to West Virginia for a girl, who had family in the area, all before he turned 21. She left him to move back to New York and Dan became a Marine. There are a few old scars there, I’m certain, but I decide not to dig further into his history with his ex. Our conversation meanders from one topic to another, from siblings to vacations, relationships to politics, and the art of a good wink.

“A good wink,” I tell Dan, “is cheeky and quick. If you blink too slowly you look like a drunk or a creep. But a lopsided grin that’s natural – with a quick wink – is perfect.”

“Of course,” I add, “it has to come from the right person for it to really work.”

“Like this?” Dan asks as he lowers his eyes and flutters his eyelids, then lets out a high-pitched giggle, the perfect imitation of a coquette and then winks cartoonishly slow. Our laughs fill the corner, and ring off of the walls, as we try to outmatch the other in the art of the ridiculous wink.

Later in the evening, I discover that Dan has a brother named Steve, who lives with his partner in Manhattan. He’s a few years older than Dan and has been out since he was a teenager. Another rarity, especially for rural Maine. 

“In fact,” he says, “I made some headway with the guys where I was stationed.”

“Really?” I hate to admit it, but I’m surprised by both Dan and his colleagues. 

“Actually, it was unheard of – for the most part. Over time though, I got them involved in petitioning, and even in supporting a nonprofit that Steve started.”

“What group?” I ask.

“He started a support group in Boston, and my squad started to write letters to the group, after I got them into the idea of doing so. You know, asking questions. Learning about how the other thinks, what each other is going through. Things like that.”

Dan takes a quick sip of his beer and licks the foam off his mouth. He smiles at me, and I’m pretty sure that he’s just caught me staring at his lips.

“It really changed and reinforced a lot of opinions, for the better. If nothing else, it opened the most conservative of them up to having conversations. Sometimes it starts small like that. But,” he says, “it’s a start.”

Dan takes a happy swig from his beer, and taps his feet to the music. His shoulders are relaxed. This is probably for the first time in months. I can’t help but look at him and think, “Yum.” My thoughts should be more articulate than that but my shoulders have also relaxed. We talk and hold hands, and glance at each other. Our jaws are sore from laughing and smiling. It’s a great kind of pain.

Someone is singing Black Velvet upstairs, and I get a look in my eye.

“Do you sing, Dan?” I wiggle an eyebrow suggestively and get up from the table to lead him away.

We sneak our way up the narrow staircase and into the room where the party has dwindled from many to several. By the time we get up there, five large men and one thin woman are doing their best version of ‘Do You Think I’m Sexy’ with a discombobulated booze-garbled twang that bounces off the walls. We sidle up to the deejay, a teenager with black and red-streaked hair, who probably dreams of a life in New York. Dan whispers his request to the boy. The others at the party don’t seem to notice us. As the last line of the song ends, we applaud as loud as two sets of hands can. Dan climbs up on to the small stage and nods at the deejay to start the music. A TV screen queues up and an image of an old Cadillac flashes across the screen, with words below.

The first guitar notes of a song I’ve loved since I was a child exits the speakers. The first bit of the song echoes and shoots right through me. It’s the kind of song that I have to dance to no matter what mood I’m in. No matter where, or how tired I am – or anything. It’s the kind of song that you feel in your head, in your heart, and in your naughty bits. It’s. Oh. Mercy.

“I’m driving in my car
I turn on the radio”

Dan looks right at me, and I am Insta-Putty. “Sucker,” I mumble to myself.

“I’m pulling you close you just say no
You say you don’t like it but girl I know you’re a liar
‘Cause when we kiss . . . Fire”

“Oh dear,” my head tells my body.

“Late at night I’m taking you home”

Ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seat belts. This ride will be bumpy. The word “verklempt” is very appropriate for this moment.

“I say I wanna stay you say you wanna be alone
You say you don’t love me you can’t hide your desire
Cause when we kiss . . . Fire”

My body answers my head, whose only thought is an articulate “Eeee!”

My hips are swaying and my dress is swishing again. Dan is wiggling his eyebrow and pointing right at me. He can really sing.

“You had a hold on me right from the start
A grip so tight, I couldn’t tear it apart
My nerves all jumpin’ actin’ like a fool
Well, your kisses they burn, but your heart . . . stays . . . cool”

The five large men and one thin woman have noticed us by now and are gawking at us; the men at me, the woman at Dan. She decides to dance next to me, and seduce the rock star that Dan has become. She is much older, and is married to the largest of the five men, who is drunk and surly looking. He is sporting tattoos that smack of textbook “Biker Gang Member.” The kind that say “Do not fuck with me.” He watches Dan out of the corner of a squinted eye, which has turned red and hazy. I watch as he drinks scotch. Scotch and bikers do not make for a good match.

Dan winks at me, fluttering his eyelids like a coquette again and I’m in stitches.

“Oh oh,” I tell myself, “this man makes me laugh.” An imaginary little Mayday sign flashes on and off above my head, but I pop the thought bubble and bite the corner of my lip.

“Romeo and Juliet
Samson and Delilah
Baby you can bet their love they didn’t deny
Your words say split, but your words they lie
‘Cause when we kiss . . . Fire”

The woman is now gyrating maniacally, trying to channel demons with her arms spindling above her head and windmilling back down and behind her, to seduce Dan. Biker Dude’s face is now beet red, and he lumbers away from the bar, to move towards the stage.

Dan gives me a come hither wag of the finger and quotes Bruce from one of his live versions of the song:

“Oh now come here baby! You know what I like!”

I head off the husband and swish my hips up to the stage. “But only because I want to avoid Biker Dude,” my head tells my body.

Dan pulls me up on stage and draws my hips into his, continuing to sing to me. I am mush as I have never been serenaded by a man. While my former savvy self would disguise my glee, I am grinning up at Dan like an eighteen year old. I sway with him. Our eyes are on each other and he finishes the song with the two of us locked together.

“Mm, it’s burning in my soul.
I just can’t, I just can’t, I just can’t – stand myself. Oh!
It’s out of control! It’s out of control! Oh, fire!”

Dan swings me to his other hip and dips me down and back up for the grand finale. He slides his mouth down to mine and I think, “Right, time for The Big Kiss.”

Instead he draws back to whisper in my ear, “Will that do for singing?”

Putting on my serious face, I answer in like fashion “That will do.”

Dan laughs and gives me a quick squeeze. I imagine that we might stand this way for a long time, but a noise on the dance floor catches our attention, and we turn our heads away from each other to see the man and woman yelling at each other, in a heap on the floor. The husband has tried to drag her off the floor, but she retaliates by knocking him over, and falls on top of him to continue yelling at each other.

Dan notices that I am trying not to laugh, and smiling at me, he nods his head towards the door. “Come on,” he says in a quiet voice, “I’ll walk you to your car.”

We laugh our way down the stairs and out to the front porch of the Inn. The night air is thick with the scents wafting from the trees and flowers, and is scattered with specks of light flitting about.

“Tonight,” I tell myself, as if pocketing the thought away for safekeeping, “Elkins has more lightning bugs than anywhere else.”

The tiny lights flick on and off around us and I move as slowly as I can to the car. I want to give Dan time to make his move. I laugh at something he says but I find it hard to focus on the words. I am more aware of my hand which is resting comfortably in his. It feels nice to be touched like this by a man, without committing to anything further. Just the start of intimacy. There’s nothing like a good conversation with a man who can dance and think for himself. Who says more than “Oorg. G’ah. Eh?” I know that there are many men out there in the world who are like Dan. I have not yet reached such a jaded level of spinsterhood. It’s just that there are a lot of Potato Heads to comb through in this world.

Instead of a heated night in the car, or a tumble in a bed, we exchange phone numbers and email addresses, per Dan’s initiative. He’s being a gentleman, which is nice, but I wonder what he thinks will come of this. He leans in and kisses my cheek and my forehead and back down to my other cheek. We exchange furtive glances for a half an hour while we lean against the side of my car. Dan asks if I’d like to join him for breakfast, and he offers to show me the local sights tomorrow. I agree, since I have the cabin for another day. One more soft kiss on the cheek and I am safely seated in my car. Dan watches me pull away from the Inn, and waves at me from the rear-view mirror.

Later on, I tuck myself in bed, with a fire in the hearth, a glass of water on the bed stand, and a book on my lap. It’s Anne of Green Gables. I’ve decided to reread the L.M. Montgomery books, to prepare for my trip to P.E. Island. Tonight though, I find myself reading the same paragraph over and over.

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