One July
Kate Axelrod

One July, Zachary and I drove a sixteen-foot truck through Texas. A fire had swept through a stretch of land outside of Odessa and within minutes it was as though we'd driven through each season. As if we were in the middle of one of those time lapse films of a city sped up; traffic on a freeway, quick streams of light, and then a whole day gone by in an instant. It was fall at first, the trees and grass turned into brush, all amber and brown. A mile later, winter—the trees bare and caked with ash and soot, white like snow. But outside it was a hundred and one degrees, and less than an hour later we were in the city. It was bright and dry and palm trees stood, heavy and tall, tilting their wild heads toward us. The cab of the truck was not meant for lovers; we were so far apart and all I wanted was some easy intimacy—just to rest my palm against the back of Zachary's neck. We were both sweaty, and Zachary was in a sort of muted panic, sick with grief. I had to unclasp my seat belt and lean all the way over just to touch him, to offer the tiniest gesture of warmth.


Zachary's twin sister had just died and we were moving her things from an apartment in El Paso to where the rest of their family lived in Dallas. Annie's life packed up into fourteen boxes and an old paisley sofa with wooden clawed feet. Zachary's mother insisted that it all be taken to a storage space off I-45. She refused to let us throw anything away—empty bottles of perfume, pairs of vintage boots with the heels all worn down, a collection of mugs from all fifty states. By the end of our trip that day, Annie's belongings would be tucked away, and for years her family would pay a $30 monthly tribute to her, like flowers beside a headstone. A decade has passed and Zachary still visits the storage space often, that steel cell where her belongings are imprisoned. He rearranges her things and sometimes he'll come back with a turquoise ceramic lamp, or a milk crate filled with old CDs.


We didn't speak much in the car that day, but every so often he seemed overcome with hostility. I'm so fucking angry at those worthless, idiot, junkie friends of hers, he said. Zachary never cursed before then. He'd say things like gosh, and crap, and what the heck, and I'd mock him, but I always loved it. The softness of his words, a tenderness that hung in the air as he spoke. Fucking strung-out pieces of shit who let this happen to her.


I know, I said, I know, and I took off my seat belt for a moment to stroke his hand, his fingers clenched so tightly around the gear shift.


I am an only child, but I imagined Zachary's grief to be something akin to losing an arm or a leg. A glaring, persistent absence. Still, I have dreams where Zachary and I are eating dinner in our kitchen, sitting at opposite ends of our sleek glass table. We are eating angel hair pasta with pesto and pine nuts and cherry tomatoes, and we are talking about our days. He is telling me something about the model U.N. group he leads for the ninth graders he teaches, and then he asks if I need anything. I tell him another glass of red wine, and he wheels himself gracefully to the kitchen counter and I am utterly shocked to see him that way—without a leg—forever wheelchair-bound. I am struck, each time, with that blunt feeling of his loss.


After driving for four or five hours we stopped at an Arby's for lunch. Zachary said he felt too sick to eat, but I ordered us a large fries and a strawberry milkshake to go. We sat on some benches in the parking lot, squinting into the day, at the sky that was both gray and bright. This feeling in my chest, he says, it won't go away. He hadn't eaten a real meal in days, but suddenly he was throwing up into the dirt, his vomit all watery and splattering onto the wheels of a Toyota nearby.

You'll be OK, I told him, just get it out, get it all out, sweetheart.

He said there was nothing left, but he was still shaking, and then he started to cry. It's just this feeling in my chest, he said again, it's hard to breathe.

Just take some deep breaths, I said, my palm flat and motionless beneath his dampened T-shirt. Have some water and breathe slowly and it'll be all right. But we both knew that wouldn't do it. And that maybe, nothing would.

Kate Axelrod lives in New York. She has work on and elsewhere.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Mike Zebble.

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