How I Love You Can Be Said
Written by Kate Burkhardt
Allie props her feet up on the dashboard as Laz hits the gas hard down the Interstate; they’ve been traveling along the blinding sun for five hours. Allie’s head throbs. The whole car’s filled with stale air and the smell of rotting fruit, intermingled with the smell of bile that’s been creeping up for the past ten minutes.
This is vacation, earned from Laz winning a 10,000 dollar sum with the lottery a week before the kid finished up kindergarten. Laz always said “I’m luckier than everyone else. Just naturally. I don’t know why. There isn’t a God.”
He didn’t say it when he won the lottery. He didn’t need to say it and Allie didn’t need to hear it.
Allie turns around to the kid sucking his thumb, his face covered in a chunky mess, little league T-shirt soaked in more puke. She found the shirt at a Goodwill for him. She never put him into sports or extracurricular. His life outside the context of in his arms before school or tucked in before bed never really occurred to Laz.
Tucked away in a suitcase, there’s a macaroni stained shirt, bearing “Science Club!” with clip-art style pictures of bubbling beakers.
“How long has that been there?” she asks him, pinching her nose.
The kid’s eyes fix into hers. She jokes to him that he has “suspicious eyes” – they’re dark and nearly round; they express half-formed guilt, or cautious appraisal.
He continues to suck his thumb.
“Ansel, how long have you had throw-up all over you?”
The kid shrugs and stares out the window, pressing his nose to the glass as he tucks his thumb under the elastic of his cargo shorts.
“Honey, can you please crack open the window?”
They’re in a light blue van, not a minivan but a real one that’s big and boxy and old. The way the windows in the backseat work is that you crank them open and then push them out from the metal exterior of the van. “Be careful, mommy, last time you cried ‘cause you burned your hand on the van.”
The kid keeps his thumb tucked into the waist of his jeans, and then proceeds to put his whole fist into his pants to play with himself.
“Honey, your hands are covered in throw-up. That’s disgusting.”
She doesn’t mind that he’s playing with himself – she never does – but she needs him to listen to her because she hasn’t eaten in hours, which always makes her dizzy and desperately impatient. Having a high metabolism has never been in her favor, though people tell her that they are envious. You want what you can’t have – a human problem as old as human origin.
Laz fills the dead air with a deep heavy breathing he won’t explain and it’s so overdone that it contextually overrides the rumble of the engine. The tension emanates off the way his hands grip the wheel and the tightly controlled lip that twitches by default. Allie tells herself it’s the smell of puke that’s getting her so riled up because in the front seat of the car, head pressed against the warm glass, her limbs induce themselves into a frenzy of mini tremors as her torso pumps blood to her extremities, all of this exaggerated by the imprisonment of the taut fabric of the seatbelt. She presses her palm to the hot metal of the buckle and clicks it open. Laz’s head twitches to the side a bit and he stops breathing for a split second. He focuses back to the road, the hard stoic expression once again orchestrated by muscles of subtle consternation.
Laurence almost exclusively goes by Laz unless Allie is really furious with him or feeling sexual impulse she can’t control. In those cases, she’ll call him Laurence Ethan Livingston, either screeched from the guttural rage that torments her or from a rapid frenzy that she washes over his open mouth and neck.
Laz used to go by Lefty because he wrote and played the bass with his left hand but the people in his life who knew him that way stopped coming around and Allie stopped calling him that some time after the kid was born, though she wouldn’t really be able to say why. He’s twenty seven and handsome in that classic smoldering stomach-dropping kind of way, classic blue eyes, big lips, definitive jaw, full head of thick brown hair. He doesn’t look like anyone famous but he looks like he should be.
She’s twenty five and pretty in a way that can’t be really compared to anything; just like him, but it’s not classic by any means. She has a wide crooked smile often stretched across her narrow face that he likes to hold in his fingertips during and after they fuck. This kind of physical tenderness happens when he is drunk and it suits him.
It always suits her.
Neither of them smile because they’re fundamentally happy but sometimes they know how to feel good.
“Ansel! Open the fucking window!”
The kid removes his hand from his pants and lays it on his lap, then pushes the window open, just a sliver.
“A little more, please.”
The kid closes his eyes and tilts his head back. He drools a little bit, for show. He never throws tantrums or makes much noise. He does what he’s told and stays at home when Allie and Laz leave him alone for a night out. They’d stopped bothering with babysitters. The first time they decided to leave without one was when Alisha, the high school valedictorian who lived on their block went off to Brown University. The kid was two years old, fast asleep. Laz and Allie were drunk. They started dancing in the living room while the phonograph played the newest Oblivians record, which they liked because it was upbeat and sounded like it was from a different era even though it wasn’t really. Laz and Allie were committed to an aesthetic that didn’t belong in the 21st century.
“Let’s take a drive” Laz slurred, his eyes suggestive under the low lights of a chandelier they’d picked up from a garage sale the previous week. In passionate fervor, they agree on the delicate and fine art of creating an ambience with decorative lighting. Even within the small choices of where to place a light, where to place furniture, how many lights per room based on the size in square feet – they’d had rare disagreements. Besides the sex, moving in together was the second most exciting phase of their relationship.
It started a long conversation after they’d been dating a week. At a party, inside a sparsely decorated apartment, lit only by the fluorescents that came with the place, Laz and Allie chose to leave because the pure aesthetics of their night were too nauseating. They went back to Allie’s room which was covered in white and orange Christmas lights.
In the living room on the first night without a babysitter, they lay on the floor, under the chandelier. They passed a joint back forth before the record died, before they almost put on another one.
“Let’s go look at the stars and bring the boombox from the basement out to Wakeman’s Park.”
“What about the kid?”
“He never wakes up once he’s gone to sleep. You know that.”
“Yeah but if this time’s different.” She didn’t bother to phrase it like a question.
She stopped for a moment and looked at him, heart pounding, but she’d already made up her mind.
When Laz gets like this, she grabs hold and runs with him, believing that they can stay like that indefinitely.
Drunk and sloppy, Allie pressed her head into into Laz’s chest and clawed at his thumping heart. He squeezed her from either side, expanding in indefinite strength that obliterated anything that could possibly get in. His scent blurred her senses into a toxic collision and then put them under a magnifying glass.
The years deterred a lot but they never deterred Allie’s vision of their emotional aesthetic, seen from a bird’s eye view.
The things that belong to them mostly belong to her and she knows this.
“I wanna fuck you on the floor first,” she whispered into his ear. She had to pull his neck down towards her in order to press her lips to his ears. The feeling had him hard in about a second so they fucked on the floor, hands clasped, bodies dripping with sweat and then they drove out to Wakeman’s Park to drink more wine and fuck some more and laugh about things that wouldn’t carry them forward but kept them rooted into little slices of past feelings and flashes of moments fueled by a natural lingering ecstasy. They woke up, heads throbbing and shivering under the rising sun as their skin soaked up mud from the morning grass. She ran her hands all over his warm body and encased herself into him. They’d pigeonholed themselves into the crevices of one another’s bodies so often in an effort to get at something more than that, in an effort to feel like they mattered both outside of and inside of themselves. Through the eyes and hands of another. She wanted to put her hands through his skin and feel what he was made of underneath his smooth firm flesh.
She thought “There’s no such thing as really close.”
She thought “This is really close.”
She thought “I wish I was strong enough to push you into something else.”
She thought “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.”
Neither of them knew how to function on their own.
They gasped urgently lurid under the moonlight and she said to him “I think the reason we stay together is that we are electromagnetic” a word she’d learned in a high school science class that she didn’t quite remember the meaning to. He smiled at her half-sarcastically and brought his hands to her hips. She didn’t remember saying that the next morning. She said a lot of things like that to him. All she knew was that their weak susceptibility to an animal attraction kept them wedded together forever, in the mortal sense of the word. Sex kept them together. Without sex, there would be no kid and they may have parted ways a long time ago.
When the sunlight perforated the trees, Laz coughed, sending Allie’s head up to look at his eyes, barely cracking open.
“Don’t die,” she said softly to him.
“I’ll try not to.”
“I would be so sad if you died.”
“I would be so sad if you died.”
This is how “I love you” can be said.
They began to trust the kid on his own more and more, though they initially promised themselves that it was a one-time thing that first time, when they sped back home through dozens of stop signs “No cops, no stops, right?” Laz teased her as he rubbed sleep from his eyes. Eyes like that pair well with a heartbreaking smug smile, she thought to herself. That smile will have me fucked forever.
She pressed her head to the cold window and let her frustration with his callousness fester inside her mind for a few moments, then rushed forward into feeling sick to her stomach; her heart beating too fast. Images of the kid mangled and dead flashed across her mind in a series of panicked jaunty images. When she burst through the back door – left unlocked, of course – she thought of that serial killer who took unlocked doors as an invitation to slaughter – she found the kid sitting at the kitchen table spooning cereal into his little pink mouth. He didn’t say “Where have you been?” or “I thought you left me.” He just looked up at his mother and his father, then he put his bowl in the sink and retreated into his bedroom, humming something to himself without any discernible emotion, besides the momentary flash of his “suspicious eyes.”
Allie climbs into the backseat, her grown-woman legs pressing into his kid legs and opens the window glass as far as it will reach, to almost touching the chipped metal behind it.
Then she climbs into the front seat and pulls out the cassette tape that’s been silent for the past fifteen minutes. She fumbles with it, drops it under her legs.
She picks it up. She turns it over. The cassette player used to do it automatically. About a year ago, it stopped.
“Mommy, can we pull over somewhere so I can change?” He asks her, putting his arms around her shoulders from the backseat, covering her neck with his hot stinky breath.
“I don’t know when the next rest stop is. But we’re gonna stay in a motel tonight. We need to wash that shirt. We need to wash a lot of things. Including you. We all need showers, a bath for you, of course. I wanna sleep in a bed tonight.”
The back of the van is stuffed with foam pads, pillows and blankets, so they decided that for most parts of their trip, they’d put the seats down and sleep back there, with the kid sandwiched between them, all holding one another as a real family, finding comfort in the rhythmic breathing that would inevitably end up in sync as they fell into separate dreams.
With the sun hanging low in the sky, Allie starts to pay attention to road signs for small towns where they can rent a room. She looks at her husband. Micro-signs. His breathing slower. His eyes slide into focus, out of focus. His grip on the wheel slackening. Allie’s arm, prickled with needles from a lack of movement, reaches out to squeeze his. He flinches, his muscles once again orchestrated by a guard of stern consternation, protecting him against nothing under the veil of everything that she is in the years that have eluded them. Her hand recoils back, tucked between her legs before he says
“Not while I’m driving.”
“I just wanted to see how you were doing. We should pull off the next exit.”
“Yeah, that was my plan.”
“Well, you didn’t say so.”
“Do I have to say everything I plan to do? I’m tired. I’ve been driving this whole fucking time and the sun is starting to set. Some vacation this is since you conveniently got your license revoked a nice little convenient fortnight before we decided to take this trip.”
“I thought you said you weren’t mad about that.”
“I thought you said you weren’t mad about that,” he repeats, muttered, his eyebrows raised, his eyes bulging, his grip on the wheel, tight again.
“I’m sorry,” He says, a minute later; it seems like much longer; sixty seconds give or take is a long time to sit in that kind of silence.
“It’s just been a long day,” he says.
She looks back at him weakly, allowing disappoint to sag her features down to her neck. He squeezes her shoulder.
All under the veil of forgiven.
The motel rests photographically on the side of the highway, up a stretch of a dirt road of fine dust that kicks up a storm underneath the wheels of the van. The kid is asleep.
While Allie goes into the front office to reserve a room, Laz slides open the backseat of the van and lifts the kid up, smoothing his hands over the whorls of auburn hair pressed flat to the back of his head. He kisses the kid’s head gently, inhaling the smell of Allie’s shampoo that he likes to use. Allie comes out with the keys dangling from her hand and ambles slowly to a room a few doors down from the front office. Laz follows with the kid. Upon entering the room, they all lay down on one of the two queens sized beds, adjacent in front of a fairly large television. Laz and Allie sigh simultaneously and the kid’s shallow breaths make small punctures at a quick and frenetic pace. He turns onto his abdomen, his limbs splayed out at his sides and his little legs, still in white sneakers, kick up at the air in a series of a few spasms and come back down again. He sighs, his sigh very similar to the one Laz and Allie just stared and both of them crack up in a moment of brief, full laughter.
The television guides their night, the pleasure of its company something they haven’t gotten during their past two nights on the road. The kid, asleep again, after waking up for The Terminator, tucks his head into Laz’s armpit, his little fist, resting slackened on Laz’s wide chest.
Laz doesn’t snore, which Allie tries to remember to thank his body for every night.
She can’t sleep, regardless. Down the road is a convenience store, open 24 hours.
She quit smoking for Ansel and so did he.
The sky is purple when she steps outside.
She walks out by the pool and opens the gate, letting her toes make a small ripple in the glass still water.
The cricket are an orchestra and they are clear in the night air, unseen against the backdrop of the deeply indigo sky, which fades into a lighter blue against the dark flat line of horizon. Summer nights remind Allie of Laz in a different way than summer days do and winter just renders Laz an entirely different person in her mind. Her whole chest aches when she thinks of before Ansel was born, when she thinks of the small town and the hum of the flickering street lights that look the same as these ones do and the the way the air felt like a warm bath and the way her brain sloshed around with alcohol when Laz bent down and kissed her, his hands on her ass, his breath sweet and dark and heavy and smoky and he said “You’re not pretty in the way the other girls are pretty, in a way any of them are, but I don’t mean that in a bad way; I think you are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”
When a girl grows up in a small town and she’s never been looked at in awe, only in hunger, by big dumb slabs of fat, it’s over at that point, at least for awhile, until hormones settle down or she gets pregnant.
“Pregnancy stunts your growth” Allie said to him, after she broke down and cried at the abortion clinic and said she couldn’t do it and he squeezed her hand as his stomach filled with air pockets of dread that burst and rocketed into his throat, which he waited two minutes two expel in a toilet.
“Honey, I have to pee. I’ll be right back. I’m sorry. I need a moment. I’ll be right back.”
Dread is a gray-ish green, against a backdrop of sterile white, under flickering fluorescent lights. Dread eats away at your stomach lining until you flush it down and enter back into a lobby, palms sweaty, chin held high. Flushing dread down a toilet is the right and moral thing to do. Laz never even considered himself a moral person until he walked back from the bathroom and squeezed his girlfriend’s hand. That was the moment that made him a good person.
Another moment that made him a good person was cutting down on the alcoholism so Ansel could have more to eat. Settling down. Contacting his parents for help when he was ashamed to, when he knew Allie couldn’t talk to hers.
He said that nothing was ever enough for her. She just wanted to feel his touch more frequently when he wasn’t so drunk.
She just wanted him to say “I love you” when she had a miscarriage in tears. She could tell he coursed with triumph.
Allie stands up against the gate of the fence, wrapping her fingers around the crisscrossing metal that is still warm from the heat of the day. The light from the convenience store casts shadows along the end of the road and it beckons to her in some kind of way that might be ascribed to the word “desolate”. Her feet kick at the pavement underneath her; she scratches her toenails against it. It makes a sound. A tiny harsh sound. Her hands grip the metal tighter and she turns around, she opens the gate, she walks through it, she hears the clang of metal behind her.
She wraps her arms around her husband. His heart beats at a strong and steady pace.