Getting Yourself Home
by Brenda Miller
you’re in the bed of a stranger. Well, not a stranger, really—he’s your boyfriend, after all, you agreed to this designation just the other day, both of you content from an afternoon of careful courtship, the binoculars passed from hand to hand as you watched the trumpeter swans and the snow geese sharing a field in the Skagit River plains. But now his face, when you glimpse it sidelong, looks so rigid, the mouth shut tight, the head tilted up and away. Even those creases around his ear, those lines you once found endearing, now seem a deformation. Even if you could see each other clearly, your glances would knock sidelong off each other, deflecting, and you can hardly imagine now the first time you made love: not the sex itself, but the kiss that preceded it—so long, so breathtaking, your head arched back, the body’s tendons giving way without a thought.
But now you feel dangerously exposed, your body huddled under the covers: how has it come to this so quickly, so soon? You wrap your arms around your naked chest and long for your flannel pajamas, but they’re at your own house, hanging on the hook behind the bathroom door, you can see them so clearly, along with a vision of your new kitten wandering the house by herself, still so bewildered by these rooms, mewling into the dark—did you leave on a light? did you fill her water bowl?—she’s frightened, you imagine, and baffled by
It’s three o’clock on a winter morning, foggy, the roads slick with ice. You turn in the bed, away from this man and his thick arms, his muscled chest, the wrists powerful from days spent with hammers and saws. You open your eyes and begin to calculate each of the moves it would take to get you out of here: the flip of the blankets, the swing of your legs onto the floor, the search for your clothes crumpled on the chair by the desk, gathering those clothes in your arms and tiptoeing over the creaking planks to pull them on in the other room—the boyfriend muttering from his side of the bed, or not making a sound, his eyes tightly closed, his head twisted away. And then the search for your purse, your shoes, your keys, your coat, standing with all these things by the doorway, trying to decide whether or not to say goodnight, and finally just fleeing down the stairs and out the door to your car, the windows covered in a thin sheet of ice. You’d have to scrabble for the lock, nicking the paint, then inside put the defroster on high, jumping out again with scraper in hand, hacking away at the windows, your hands aching with cold. Finally, the creep up the dirt driveway, dipping your head to peer under the scrim of frost, accelerating too hard so the back end swerves as you pull out onto the road. Then the road itself: pitch dark, slick, the air veiled with fog so the high beams do not illuminate so much as blind as you make your clumsy way home.
Just the thought of it exhausts you, and when you contemplate even the first of these moves—the turning back of the covers—you realize the impossibility of even such a simple gesture, one that will lead you out of here and back where you belong. You dare not move a muscle, so you blink back the darkness and try to navigate how you got here in the first place, scrolling in your mind, but all you get is a procession of men from your past—they parade before you, one after the other, all of them turning to smile at you briefly, forlornly, their foreheads puckered in disappointment.
You shut your eyes, take a deep breath. You try to remember what your meditation teacher told you about the breath: how you enter your true home with each inhalation, each exhalation, a cadence old and plain as those worn-out concepts of love, of compassion. So you try it: you breathe in, you breathe out, but there’s a glitch in your throat, a mass in your chest, and your body feels nothing like home, more like a room in a foreign hotel, the windows greasy, the outlets reversed, the noise of the street rising like soot. The body’s no longer an easy abode, not in this bed, not with two strangers lying in the dark and waiting—breath held—for morning finally to arrive.
Brenda Miller’s collection of essays, Season of the Body (Sarabande Books, 2002), was a finalist for the PEN American Book Award. She has received four Pushcart Prizes for her work.