Despite the value of our platonic relationship and despite the hazards of making it romantic, I have always hoped for a little something more
One afternoon last year, on a cotton farm in Mississippi during the late summer, I stood on a hillside watching Elaine, the most beautiful woman I've ever known, fire a rifle named Waylon. She was a decent shot. Her black tights grew darker with sweat as she situated each of her legs to aim. The freckles on her cheekbone coalesced as she squinted one eye to sight the target. Her tan shoulders got sharp from strain as she took her time waiting to fire. On the tenth shot of her round, eight of which had resulted in a shattered whiskey bottle twenty yards away, Elaine, propping the barrel against her shoulder, walked towards me with a coy simper. It was at that very moment I found myself, involuntary as a hiccup, falling in love with her all over again.
The gun was her idea. Although I grew up in the South, hunting is one aspect of Southern culture in which I have never participated.
Elaine and I had some history. Ever since my sophomore year of college, when the two of us met at a frat party, we had run the gamut of a friendship without benefits. We watched movies together and we had drinks together and we studied for class together. The potential for intimacy was part of our attraction to each other. Inside a bar, her hand would squeeze my thigh as she laughed at a joke I had made, and outside a bar, her gaze would match my own the whole time she spent lighting a cigarette. Not once did Elaine or I take it further.
The problem was that one or both of us usually had significant others. But our friendship also had its advantages. She happily obliged whenever I asked her to be my arm candy for a party at which an ex-girlfriend would be in attendance. She brought me along as a third for coffee dates whenever her current boyfriend needed a push towards commitment. Still, despite the value of our platonic relationship and despite the hazards of making it romantic, I have always hoped, throughout the ten years I've known her, that Elaine might one day ask from me what I was desperately, helplessly prepared to give.
That summer she'd come to visit me in Mississippi so that I could finally show her my home state. I was single, but she was not. Even though I was excited to see her, I was also disappointed that Elaine, after all of our talks about a visit, had finally taken me up on the offer. What would her boyfriend think? The thing I found disappointing was that he obviously saw no reason to worry.
At the camp house on my family's farm, where I was staying for a few weeks so I could write, Elaine had the run of her own bedroom, separated from mine by the excruciating length of a kitchen. The bathroom was on the other side of my room. Every morning of that long weekend, consequently, I had to pretend not to notice how perfect her shoulders looked with a towel wrapped around her chest, the way her hair got even curlier when wet, the way her cheeks got even shinier when clean, how beautiful her lips seemed even during a task as quotidian as the brushing of teeth.
Elaine wanted the full experience of the South. "No problem," I told her, "my pleasure." So I did everything possible to give it to her.
Over the weekend I basically had to teach Elaine a new language -- putting "comeback sauce" on the "kibbee," driving a "Kubota" down to "the home place" -- in order to show her the world in which I had been raised. We picked honeysuckle by the bunch. At a cotton gin in Linwood, we waited out a thunderstorm, tin roof atwitter, by touring machinery covered in lint. We ate slices of Mississippi Mud pie with Mississippi mud caked on our shoes. At a gas station in Benton, we fed a bag of deep-fried peanuts, their shells edible, to a stray dog with only one ear. We watched a family of deer nibble at salt licks. Around sundown each day that weekend, Elaine and I sat in a breezeway on the porch, sipping whiskey and making chit-chat, a fan overhead drying the sweat from our brows.
Later, I had to watch Elaine rub lotion on mosquito bites, my regret for the landscape having caused her pain joined, confusingly, with thanks for it allowing me to stare at her thighs.
My feelings in regards to Mississippi were just as complicated. Growing up in the confines of the Deep South, I had been a liberal among conservatives and an atheist among believers, the latter in each case often intolerant of the former. Mississippi was, at the same time, a part of myself. Despite its many problems, I cared about the place, its people as well as its culture. Elaine always seemed to understand my conflicted feelings for the state, which I suppose is ironic, given how those conflicted feelings were mirrored in my situation with her. Something in my heart has always been recklessly attracted to people who are reckless with my heart.
The funny thing is that Elaine and I got to know each other at the northeastern college I attended due supposedly to the "brain drain," a neologism that describes the means by which schools across the southeast lost their brightest students. Now here I was acting like a regular good old boy. Elaine said she had never seen me so happy, implying our surroundings were the cause. She was right about the first part.
* * *
The gun was her idea. Although I grew up in the South, hunting is one aspect of Southern culture in which, fortunately or unfortunately, I have never participated. Nonetheless, it turned out that Elaine was an enthusiast of firearms. Who was I to deny her the right to squeeze off a few rounds?
That summer she'd come to visit me in Mississippi so that I could finally show her my home state. I was single, but she was not.
At a sporting-goods store, after picking up some country albums on sale for a dollar, Elaine and I went halvsies on the .22, which, according to the clerk, was "just powerful enough to explode a squirrel." The ride home was fraught with the question of what we should name it. Bicep? My Little Friend? Chekhov? We eventually named it for the music of Mr. Jennings twanging from the car speakers.
"Safety first," Elaine said on our first outing with Waylon. "Remember that."
I wanted to respond with the gauche line, "So pretty much the opposite of sex?" but instead I quietly watched her handle the weapon. A pair of aviators slid down her nose as she slapped the clip in tight. A cigarette hung from her lips as she cocked the first round. The absolute sexiest thing I had ever seen Elaine do before that day was make out with her best friend. That moment was now in second place.
On a hill in the bottomland of the farm, surrounded by soybean and shaded by oak trees, we positioned old whiskey bottles for a shooting gallery. Elaine handed me the rifle, saying I had the honors. She placed the barrel against my shoulder, her nipple pressing into my back and her breath moist along my neck, to help me line up the target. Elaine stepped back, and I pulled the trigger. Every shot from my first round left the row of bottles perfectly intact, the red dirt behind them mushrooming into clouds of red dust.
It took a few more rounds for me to get used to it. Soon enough, I was making all my shots. Get the target centered with the sight while keeping your hands steady and the glass bottles twenty yards away would burst with a melodic clatter. If only other things, I thought, were so damn simple. On the last bullet of my last round, Elaine, standing a few feet away from me, whispered, "You're almost as good a shot as my boyfriend," seconds after which my hot streak fizzled out in silence.
Nothing happened between us the rest of that weekend. My conscience kept me from making a move. It was a time of consumption rather than consummation -- barbecue ribs and pimento cheese, fried catfish and buttermilk pie -- until the day I drove her to the airport for her flight back. On the drive we passed cotton field after cotton field withering in the heat. I would be making that same trip to the airport a few days later for my own flight.
In the terminal I said goodbye to Elaine by hugging her for what I worried was too long a time. She responded by giving me a kiss, brief enough for it to be considered chaste, so fully on the mouth my lips got damp. "Thanks for everything," Elaine said. "Don't be a stranger." She disappeared into her departure gate. Then as well as now, I have been haunted by the question of whether the occasion will come, a third act to our drama, when Elaine and I hear a crack, see trails of smoke, and smell cordite, sensations that will signal not an end but a start.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.