Eventually there would be a sound of life. Beyond the rhythmic whisper of the Pacific she waits for his crude movements. Careless waves caress the beach beyond the highway from where she lies. Luciana pulls herself further into her down sleeping bag, more out of habit than an actual attempt to get warm. Still again, she waits. This silent waiting is not like the waiting she’s done all night, listening for the sound of tires or footsteps, belonging to a cop who wanted them gone from this park, or announcing the presence of darker intentions. When her internal timer runs out, she pushes the bag off of her face with a single, flustered movement of her shorter arm. The middle finger of her only hand traces the thick pink scar at the end of where her right elbow used to be. The colorful tattoo flowers growing from this track, a scar now depicted as a pink crack in a sidewalk, would always brighten her day with resilience. Stepping out into the grey morning light, she decides it’s the hidden Oregon sun muting the hues in her tattoo.
The lushness of Oregon flashes by her windows and she begins to inventory the ways she is sure this Connor is the same as the bookish homebody she’d roomed with in college. It only serves to make her think about Elizabeth and the impression she’d have of her husband running along the Pacific Highway from Seattle to Oakland. The last time Elizabeth saw her husband he was at his computer, researching things completely unrelated to his blog or his thesis. The back of his head, a bird’s nest of hair never combed upon exiting bed, is the snapshot Elizabeth’s unconscious mind frames. His pale, paper-thin skin is now a ruddy complexion. Non-existent muscle tone is replaced with sinewy ropes of flesh. From the day they’d started dating, Elizabeth tried to improve him: body, mind, and soul. She could see something in him even Luciana couldn’t, despite being his best friend. Is this what she saw? Luciana hoped not. It would mean Elizabeth’s judgement was not as perfect as she and Connor thought.
Searching for pedestrians at this hour is simple. Roughly a mile from the arched green spine of the bridge, she sees his silhouette and slows. Her flashers turn on without her thinking about it. She creeps behind him, foot only on the brake, as she has done for three hundred miles. The idle of her car is quiet, but she knows he can hear her. He doesn’t turn around to look. He stays focused on the bridge, pouches on his waist band bouncing opposite the cadence of his steps. Luciana took to packing those pouches every evening since he’d always forget, passing out from dehydration or low glucose a time or two. She starts to frame shots, trying to figure what would capture the magnanimity of his undertaking. No matter how she focuses the shot, the green world around Connor seems to swallow him. It would still be several minutes before Connor would arrive at the bridge and Luciana settles into her familiar boredom. Life has stretched along this highway, and she wasn’t sure if it would be able to snap back into anything firm enough to be useful. Along this highway, at six miles per hour, all music starts to sound the same. Scenery fades to meaninglessness. The food, only what can be found in windows or gas stations, has lost any appeal, if it ever had any for her. She looks down at the pooch under the seatbelt, rubbing her short arm across it, and thinking back to the day she agreed to this.
Connor was blank. His eyes, his posture, his words were all void. She held his hand while they stared down at Elizabeth’s immobile figure. The glow always emanating from Lizzie’s skin, defying the Seattle rain, had run from her. Her lifelessness, and Connor’s, made them match for the first time in their relationship. Luciana wanted to hold Elizabeth’s body to hers, the way her Spanish mother would, or wail shamelessly, the way her Moroccan father did at his sister’s funeral. Instead she cleared her throat too much and squeezed Connor’s hand until their palms were sticky with sweat. He didn’t try to touch Elizabeth. He just looked at her, or maybe through her. Silently they stood guard while time passed and the night was over. When Elizabeth’s parents arrived, taking up the other space in the room until their spots by her bed, where Connor and Luciana stood at attention for anything misconstrued as consciousness, were consumed as well. In the hall, when Luciana asked if he’d like to eat a little, he answered with “I want to go for a run.” Of course, she didn’t understand. She nodded and took him home to get his shoes. When he called four hours later, and sixteen miles away from his house, he said he had an idea to maintain his wife’s life support. His flailing blog would have new purpose, documenting a man running, carrying the torch of insurance reform. If he couldn’t convince his insurance giant to keep his wife alive, maybe the interest developed could give him enough sponsors to pay for a few more breaths.
Finally Connor stops. The four spires of the bridge, fangs on the jaw of a bygone monster, lay two hundred yards in front of them. Robotically, Luciana looks for some glucose gel packs and water before exiting the car.
“You left early.”
“Wanted to cross the bridge and then get another twenty done.”
“You’re not going to have enough time to write tonight.”
“You said that last night and you ran less than what you’re planning today.”
“Your job is pictures. My job is writing,” Connor says, looking at the bridge. “It’s pretty.”
She stares across the empty expanse. “Hey. Drink.”
Connor grabs the water from her hand and begins to gulp without taking his eyes off the bridge. His hair sticking to head, and with hunched posture, he keeps his legs moving. Marching, hopping, and walking in circles, he cannot stop moving. It’s only logical to be driven insane like this. Looking inside herself, at what losing Elizabeth is doing to her, and adding the thought of losing a shared life with her the way Connor gets to, nearly caves Luciana’s chest in. Connor is finally fighting for life. It makes Luciana want to fight for him again.
Luciana runs her middle finger through the pink crack on the sidewalk of her arm. Her arm teaches her discrepancy. It marks a tangible line: the way things were, and the way things are. To adapt, to evolve, becoming something better, is about respecting the line. The conversation with her new body insulates her from becoming overly angry or sullen by what happened, preventing a thought of her correct life having ended to be left with an incorrect one. The correctness of her new body makes her a better photographer. She sees things as they are. The red circles of blood on the front of Connor’s shirt, evidence of his chapped nipples, illustrate what his body conversations look like.
“Maybe we can bring Elizabeth here.”
The words sting her, bringing hot liquid through her eyes. She quickly turns away. But he should have her purifying pain, Luciana decides. Turning back she sees him smiling. It is a small, faraway smile. Luciana’s face burns red. He’s cheating on Elizabeth again, marrying his mind to what could be, rather than what is. Luciana’s obligation to her own lie, built with years of fidelity to layers of silence, dies. She sheds the layer built for Connor. Its weight disappears instantly. It had weight only because she held it. With it tumbles respect constructed by the pressure of years. Only now can she tell her love for him traveled but never returned. There is no reason anymore to hide, especially from herself, how she loves Elizabeth. This love, too, has the same odds of returning to her.
“Got your camera ready?” he says over his shoulder. Without checking to see if she does, he makes for the bridge.
He’s got an easy stride, the one Luciana taught him to have in order to get a clean shot; a consistent brand of movement. Head high, shoulders back, this would make a cover of a running magazine. In the frame, Luciana sees how he’ll get the money, and the health insurance change. It wasn’t impossible after all. It’s so much easier than the love surrounding Elizabeth. She snaps three shots, then puts the camera away. With the Focus started the image of the yawning emerald mouth, swallowing her friend, fills her eyes. She ponders if love built of pity, or pity built of love, is stronger.
Toby LeBlanc is a mental health professional at the University of Texas at Austin. He meets monsters everyday. The hardest part of his job is to convince others they aren’t the monsters that live inside them.