The furniture was gone. And only the promise of empty space stared back at me. It was the promise of empty space that had beckoned me to Utah six and a half years earlier. The naked sky offered me the possibility to do anything and be anyone, and the silent mountain sentinels assented to shield me from mistakes.
This isn’t exactly how it happened.
I fell in love, first with the mountains, then with a woman. And it ended. But it didn’t end quickly, in one fell swoop, or a nice quick chop. The love faded like the furniture, piece by piece. This is the love of the woman I’m talking about. My love of the mountains never vanished even if the jagged outline of a ridgeline or a range no longer appears on my horizon. It took a whole week for my furniture to disappear. It took 18 months for that love to evaporate.
The teaky futon was the first to go, and my kitchen table was the hardest to let go. It was the first piece of furniture I had bought in Salt Lake and I carted it everywhere: from the South Temple apartment to our house on the West Side to the 9th & 9th cottage. A modest pine table with two hinged leaves, it had been painted multiple times and partially sanded. The leaves had stretches of green and white paint on them while red and yellow paint twisted down the legs. My dad and I had found it at an art gallery consignment shop, and, with a little elbow grease, we unearthed matching chairs in the bowels of the shop. I sold the table and chairs for a crumble of cash to a half-drunk guy in his 20s.
With the furniture gone, the cottage reminded me of what it felt like when I moved in. This place had radiated potential. Here was a humble place where someone could make a life or recover from a past one. The shower had good water pressure, and the kitchen had a gas stove. Windows dotted the east, south, and west walls. The neighborhood boasted a park, a coffee shop, a yoga studio, and killer burritos. The basement provided ample storage space. There was a porch and screen door off the living room. The backyard was fenced. I had even started a compost pile. But sometimes it’s not enough to have everything in place.
The one thing that remained in the cottage was the Delta Sky Kennel, Prufrock’s home for the next several hours. I had purchased the kennel a month ago, and Pruf and I had been practicing. First, we worked on simply being in the kennel. I’d coax him in with a treat and close the door. We worked up to Pruf spending 30 minutes or more in the kennel while I was in the other room or out on a quick errand. But, now, our last morning in Salt Lake, our beloved Salt Lake, I went full-bore with him. I scooped him into the kennel, slammed the door, and prepared him for takeoff. The rumpled brown carpet offered just the right amount of resistance. We didn’t sail across the floor; instead, we bumped along, much like, I told my dog, flying over the merciless Wasatch. Wrestling the kennel across the floor, I pushed, pulled, and shimmied. I dragged it in circles, I rocked it side-to-side, I pounded on the top, I rattled the sides. I even howled. I just didn’t want him to be scared. I didn’t want him to be as scared as I was.
Natalie chuckled when she walked in on me whirling around my dog. I had said goodbye to everyone else, leaving my best friend Natalie to the final hours. We had met through a yoga workshop and had built our friendship from the ground up: funny emails at first, followed by more personal ones, and eventually, we found the courage to hang out in person. Over “B & N,” beer and nachos, we listened to each other cry, offering up yoga pointers—“Try 10 minutes of bound lotus every day for a month to break bad habits”—and relationship counsel—“She’s really missing out on life by not going with you.” While nine a.m. was too early for B & N, we could at least have coffee and eggs at the Avenues Bakery, a prime brunch spot in my old neighborhood.
It’s hard to say what the Avenues Bakery was more famous for: its tasty food or its unforgivable service. Waiting 10 minutes for a cup of coffee was routine. The wait staff was young, pierced, and inked, and as they clotted behind the counter in their black T-shirts and aprons, glaring off into the distance, it was clear that they had better things to do. The well-intentioned middle-aged couple who ran the bistro bakery had studied in France and were trying to import a foodie culture to a homogenous city whose idea of fine cuisine extended little beyond green Jell-O. They sponsored wine tastings, scrambled local farm-fresh eggs, served up a mouth-watering assortment of tortes, tarts, and other tangy confections, and yet they consistently hired a slow, surly staff. This questionable combination of the earnest and the disenfranchised made any meal there a dangerous proposition.
Shortly after nine, the Saturday crowds had yet to appear at the Avenues Bakery. Natalie and I easily found a table by the window, and our coffee arrived within a few minutes of our order. The Bakery covered half a block on South Temple, a wide boulevard with cast iron streetlamps, ancient trees, and Gothic “gentile” churches. The windows spread almost from floor to ceiling, making this place a prime people-and-car-watching venue. My first couple of years in Salt Lake, when I was in grad school, I had lived just three blocks away, between the Presbyterian church and the Catholic cathedral. Once a week, usually after my seven o’clock seminar, I would treat myself to take-out. Picking up the turkey-and-brie panini on my way home from the university, I’d pass the evening stretched out on the floor, with plenty of beer and a weepy Lifetime movie, my books, notebooks, packets, papers, and handouts circling me. No dog yet, no lover yet, just all those words.
Over huevos rancheros and rosemary toast, Natalie regaled me with the latest Buchi family drama. This time, her younger siblings were torpedoing her efforts to resurrect Grandma Marge’s famous Christmas Eve Pajama-Waffle party. I fixed on Natalie’s story, laughing on cue, because I had gotten tired of saying goodbye. I commiserated on cue, inhaling and nodding, because there were too many questions I couldn’t answer, not even to myself. There was only the thin thread of something I knew. The thread was enough to hold on to, but if I tugged too hard or tried to pull myself up, it would snap. And so I explained sparingly but ached excessively. If it hurts so bad, then something here must matter. But if that were true, if something—or someone—here mattered, then why would I leave?
But, I could commiserate for only so long. Together, we had to face the unavoidable: I was leaving. Bumping over our words, we tried to explain what it meant to know each other. I thanked her for taking care of me during the six months of the so-called “separation” from my lover. I wished I had said more, but the thread tightened in my throat. Natalie thanked me for dragging her outside to play in the dead of winter. We laughed about our final excursion, just last week. Natalie and her husband Sam joined Prufrock and me on the Shoreline trail after a snowfall. The fresh snow tempted me. “I want to roll down this hill,” I announced, uncertain, for a moment, of my own sanity because the hill in question was really the side of a mountain. Natalie and Sam looked at each other and shrugged. “Let’s do it,” Sam said in his honey-velvet voice. Praying we didn’t lose our keys, we dove off the ridge, belly-flopping on the snow. And then we slid. And the momentum of the slide sent our legs up and over our heads. And then we tumbled. And we went faster and faster until the tumbled turned into a roll. Rolling over and over until we plowed to a stop at a gully full of scrub oak. Drunk on vertigo and Utah’s famous champagne powder, we tried to stand up. And we fell over. And we tried again. And we fell over again. Piece by piece we pulled ourselves back up the hill, wobbling, cackling, and chucking snowballs at each other. And then we did it again. And again. And again. All three of us were thirty, and we flew and fell, over and over, with the grace and promise of a child, someone not yet disappointed, not yet afraid of the rocks, lying in wait under the thin veil of snow.
Pruf danced around us, darting up the hill and down. Reaching his haunches up in the air, he stretched his paws forward and barked, his black ears waving. He licked Sam’s face, sat on my belly, and nipped at Natalie’s heels. He taunted us for being slow and dizzy and showed us how to run and kick up powder at the same time. My dog taught me how to love the mountains. I hoped he’d forgive me for taking him away. Another space lost.
The server cleared our plates and twisted his lips in something like a smile. Natalie and I drained our coffee cups empty and settled the bill. We still had time.
On the way to the airport, I asked Natalie to drive me around town, my last chance to lock my eyeballs on this city. From the Bakery, we headed north through the Avenues neighborhood, and I marveled at the cozy arts and crafts bungalows with their recessed porches and the fanciful Queen Anne’s. We worked our way up to 11th Avenue and then headed west, winding around City Creek Canyon. The road hugged close to the steep, towering land. We swayed from side to side at every bend. Pruf began to stir. He stood up, his claws clicking against the plastic floor of the kennel. His tail thumped and he whinnied. Turning circles in the kennel, Pruf’s whinnies grew into full-fledged barks. He wanted to get out and run. I wanted to get out and run. I thought about the moose, deer, elk, coyotes, bobcats, magpies, jackrabbits, and rattlesnakes I had seen in this canyon. We had seen in this canyon. This was our place, and when the car made the last bend in the road, the canyon vanished. Defeated, Pruf pancaked on the plastic floor. The car continued on its course. As we made our way out North Temple, passing the Red Iguana, I asked Natalie to take me by the house. We still had time.
I hadn’t seen it in a year, since my lover had sold it. We idled at the curb. “Wow,” Natalie exhaled, “it’s so cute.” Except for that storm door, I thought. But I was also glad that the new Mission-style front door was protected. It took us two contractors and three months to get that door from the factory in Tennessee. The living room window, with the BB-gun bullet holes in it, had been replaced with a monolithic plate of glass. We had wanted to repair that window—which had snowflake stickers over the holes when we bought the house—but we didn’t want to do what these people had done. We didn’t want to swap one giant plate of glass, albeit with small holes, for another, equally unattractive plate of glass, however solid. Somehow, we wanted that window to be able to open, to offer us some fresh air, but we couldn’t figure out how. We left it the way it was, snowflake stickers and all, for the full four years of our shared life.
The front yard was still intact. We spent every weekend of August 2004 digging up with the front, just the two of us, armed only with a shovel whose handle was splintering and a pick ax. Hours and hours passed as we wedged the blunt shovel into the sun-baked sod and wielded the ax overhead. Thirsty and tired at the end of the hot afternoon, my lover and I stumbled to the Red Iguana and sought refuge in cold Coronas and homemade mole. That August was the only time in my life I ever looked forward to Monday mornings. At work, I could rest, recharge, recover, my muscles twitching, my eyelids heavy.
I made more than she did and that fall, I spent my money on plants. Silver fountain grass, yucca, Japanese blood grass, saltbush, Russian sage, feather reed grass, and blue fescue. The front yard was spare but textured. The violet blossoms of the Russian sage sparkled next to the corduroy bricks of the house. The pointed yucca and billowing saltbush took over the southwest corner of the yard. The silver fountain and feather reed grasses reached high as their plumes bobbed in the wind. Struggling to find their footing in the rocky soil, the fescue and blood grass kept their bold colors close to the ground. But, it was the zebra grass that enthralled me the most. The tall, broad blades alternated from base to tip between a rich but pale green hue and a neutral fawn color. Like a tiger-striped kitty or my own speckled blue heeler, this grass was nature’s version of a rugby shirt, the Fair Isle sweater, argyle socks. Patterns released by genes, no elaborate stitching required.
Next to the zebra grass, there was a spot in my heart for the Alpine Blue Spruce, a young evergreen we had planted in front of the living room window. We had told ourselves we planted the tree there to block the late-day western sun. But really we had planted it to prevent passer-bys from seeing the snowflake stickers and their sister BB holes. We named the tree Bruce, Bruce the Blue Spruce. He was a squat Christmas tree, tinged with smoky blue, and we loved him. When you look at something you love every day, you don’t really notice that it’s changing. Bruce looked the same every day, but we told each other that he was getting bigger. “Look at him, now,” she’d say to me. “He’s getting so tall! In a few years, we may have to prune him. In 10 years, we’re going to have so much shade in the front yard.” Today, on this bitter, drab December morning, Bruce did look taller. My throat swelled and my jaw tightened. In 10 years, that will be an enormous tree. In one year, the space in my heart for her will contract so smoothly that I won’t even notice until it’s almost closed. This isn’t exactly how it happens.
At the airport, Natalie gave me a gift, a candle. “For meditation,” she said. We watched Pruf and his kennel get wheeled away. We hugged goodbye.
The plane to Atlanta was empty. I scooted over to a window seat. Pruf’s kennel sat on the tarmac, next to a ramp. I could see his black nose pressed up against the holes. The ground crew sweet-talked him as they loaded the kennel on the ramp. His tail flickered. He disappeared into the cargo hold. I closed my eyes.