Meghan Kenny's stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Cincinnati Review, Hobart, The Florida Review and elsewhere. She has received scholarships from Bread Loaf and The Kenyon Review Writers' Conferences, and was a Tickner Writing Fellow. She lives and teaches in Baltimore.

Return is to Here

posted May 6, 2014

IT’S JULY and things are burning -- all the trees and brush burning, leaving clouds of smoke like smog in a city, hanging over us, coming in so thick on hot days you can barely see the Sawtooths. I’ve never seen anything like it. I moved to Idaho two years ago from Connecticut. I left the flat and crowded east, looking for something wide open and new. When I drove through this valley, where there are sandy foothills sprinkled green with sagebrush, winding rivers, and mountains that are tall and sharp and purple in the evenings, I stayed. I got a job at a garden center taking care of flowers, shrubs, and trees and called it good.

There’s this thumping noise I can't get rid of comes up loud in my head at night. I lay in bed poking my finger in my left ear, trying to stuff it out, but then feel the beat on the tip of my finger, and I think for sure there must be a tumor or I'm headed for some imbalance problem and soon I'll be leaning to one side or falling all over the place. It could be the smoke, or it could be intimacy anxiety. There's been a man in my life. We've only been laying around with each other for a month, and sometimes he calls and takes me out to lunch, but I'm giving him part of the blame for the noise in my ear, as if he's brought my heart right up into my head where I hear it all the time. I can't get away from it. Maybe because I haven't felt affections for so long, this is what I get. A loud reminder of my heart, and how it's busting me all up to get going again, get loving again. But I can't put a finger on this man. I can't figure out a goddamn thing except that he likes his dog, guns, my breasts, and ice-cream that tastes like peanut butter and chocolate. And I believe he likes them in that order.

His name is Roger and I have a hard time with that. He's too young to be a Roger at thirty. Roger is an old man's name, someone who wears brown polyester slacks and has nose hair. When I say his name I sometimes say it twice, Roger Roger, and think of truckers on CB radios. He doesn't see the humor, but I laugh, and he says, Dorie, you're your best audience, you know that?

I tell him I might crack myself up, but I'm still funny, and that maybe he doesn't get my jokes. He says, I get them all right, I get them loud and clear. I tell him he's not a Roger and he says, who am I then? I say, you're something young and tough like a Rick, Tom or Dave. He says, I've always been a Roger and haven't had a problem, so if you start calling me something else we're going to have problems. I say, what kind of problems? He says, problems where I think you have your mind on someone named Rick, Tom or Dave. I tell him I'll call him Roger then even though it doesn't fit him, and he says, call me my name and we should be all set. Then he grabs for my breasts and wants to take it onto the bed. I have mosquito netting hanging from the ceiling that drapes down around the bed like a spider web, fine silky white that lets light in in a soft way. I put the netting up for an Africa feel. I've never been but the pictures of beds in Africa look exotic, restful, private and pretty.

Roger says, Dorie, let's go into the cocoon and see what's there. He takes me by the hand and holds the netting open for me to pass through. He crawls in and kisses the back of my neck. I like the way he touches me, and so I say, Roger, you've got a way with your hands. He says, thank you for saying my name. We do it and then he says he's got to get going. That he's got to feed the dog and get some decent sleep. He slips back out of the netting and dresses.

My friend Jenna tells me I need this, need to get back into the game and have some fun, if for nothing else, to open the heart again. So, right off, I told Roger I'm not looking for love, just fun. He said, you're not? I said, I'm not what? He said, you're not looking for love? I rolled onto my back and laughed and said, not right now. When he leaves to go feed his dog, I'm still on the bed naked, and it's so quiet I hear the ticking in my ear again. So I find a cotton ball in the bathroom to plug it up, and lay back down.

I met Roger over a game of darts at Jenna's house. He was quiet and had a straight shot. He got the bull’s-eye when he wanted to. When he handed me the darts his hand rested on mine longer than it had to. He touched me every time, soft and easy, and it stirred me up. I could tell how he'd touch my thighs or neck or lower back, and I knew we'd get around to it soon enough.

We got drunk together and he watched me when I threw darts, and watched me when I talked. We were too drunk to drive, so we lay on the lawn in front of Jenna’s house. He told me with his old girlfriend it wasn't the right kind of love. I told him no one had come along and gotten to me, so I didn't waste my time. He had a beard. It was after midnight, and warm. He said, I liked you the minute I met you. Then he kissed me, slow and deep, and I knew what was coming my way -- a lover. A man fresh from one woman, looking for another to take his mind off things. And at that moment I didn't mind, because he kissed me as if he had been waiting to for a long time.

*

Roger takes me out to shoot cans with the handgun he keeps behind the seat of his truck. We’re parked off an old dirt road that leads up into mountain lakes. I tell him I don't like guns, I've never seen one like this, not up close in real-life. He sets up cans on a tree trunk and tells me this spot is good; there isn't anything for the bullets to ricochet off of. I bet this is a test to see if I can stand up to it -- shooting a gun. If I don't shoot the gun I can see him calling it quits, I can see him thinking I'm snubbing him, thinking guns are for stupid people.

I stand by the truck while he fools with the gun making sure it’s loaded and ready. It’s hot and dusty and there’s smoke in the air -- a sweet, dry smell of burning pine. I slip my foot out of my flip-flop and the road is sandy and softer than a beach.

“What kind of man are you, Roger?”

“Cattle man,” he tells me, and cocks the gun. He has a small scar under his lip, half buried in his beard. Something he said he got from a bull that could have broken his face if it wanted to. “This office work is for now, for money down the road.”

“That's good, that's respectable,” I say.

“I know that,” he says.

I stand behind his truck when he shoots, and watch from over the hood. The gun going off is loud and I plug my ears. He hits one can. Then he reloads and hands me the gun. I'm shaky and he tells me to line it up with the little plastic piece standing up on the end. I shoot and don't hit a thing but get a ringing in my head. I figure if there's a ricochet then there is, and I'll go down and that will be that. I figure this is a time for me to take chances, all sorts of them, and see what it is to put things on the line. Sex and guns aren't the best way to figure out who you are and where you belong in the world, but I'm trying new things and figure it's a step in the right direction. I figure it’s better than sitting home alone or always talking about love with Jenna in her backyard.

I shoot the whole bunch of bullets, eight maybe ten, and get used to it and come close to one can, nicking the top of the tree stump.

“Oh, nice try, almost there,” Roger says, standing next to me with his arms crossed. When it's over, I keep the gun pointed out towards the tree stump, and hand it back to him.

“What use is that gun anyway?” I say.

“Shoot cans, and to shoot people before they shoot you.” He puts the gun into its case, steps close to me, and touches my neck. “What kind of woman are you, Dorie?”

“I’m a talker,” I say.

He pushes the strap of my tank top off my shoulder and licks me.

“If you paid attention, you'd know what's going on, know how to read a situation without talk.” He pats me on the butt. We're standing on the driver's side of the truck. He opens the door and reaches in, putting the gun behind the backseat.

“I’m not a mind reader, Roger.”

“You sure are pretty,” he says, and pulls me toward him by my hips. “If you want to read something, why don't you come closer and read my lips.”

I have friends getting married in Pennsylvania in the beginning of August, and I ask Roger to be my date. He tells me that seems a little serious, but that he'll think about it. I want to know why it seems serious, and he tells me it’s not a light thing to fly to a wedding to meet old friends. I ask him if maybe he can think of it as friends who have sex, if he can go with me and drink and dance and have a good time, get a little nookie. He tells me he can do that, he can help me out as a friend and that it would be nice to see Pennsylvania for the first time, maybe do it in a cornfield.

The wedding is in three weeks and I get a rash. It starts on my belly and moves up over my breasts and down just above my pelvis. It's not a pretty sight, and it itches. I tell Roger this and he's not pleased, but it doesn't stop him from touching me. He says he had worms as a kid from eating dirt, and that they go away and that's probably what I have, some kind of worm, maybe from handling flowers and dirt all day in the garden. I tell him I don't have worms, because I don't eat dirt. He says, you have worms all right, and you have to have them yanked out of your butt to get rid of them. I tell him to quit saying I have worms because I don't, and that's a fact. He says, your friends will be glad to see you, old red bump Dorie.

*

The dermatologist wears red shoes, smells like cigarettes, and tells me to relax, I don't have worms. She tells me I’ve got something no one knows how you get but it just goes away, nothing deadly, nothing that will scar. She gives me a shot of steroids in the hip, and says, steroids aren't bad for you, as long as you don't use them all the time, and that they'll get the rash off my skin before the wedding.

I leave feeling good. I get in the car and light myself a cigarette. I go home and wash the car, move some furniture around and dance to radio music. When Roger comes over I tell him they'll be no more worm comments and that old red bump Dorie will be clearing up in no time. I feel super, jacked up, and Roger and I have sex all over the place and he tells me he likes the idea of a woman on steroids. He asks me to try lifting him with my legs. I do it and he gets hot for me and comes back for more.

He sticks around this time and we lay naked in the cocoon. Above the back of my bed is a window, and there is a full moon shining in on us. He sits up some, his back against the pillows. I lay on my back, my head on his chest and he holds me, his arms up around me, his hands roaming over my stomach and breasts. He asks if I think I could lift the bed with him in it. I tell him I’ll do it in the morning. He kisses me on the head and we stay like still for a while, wide awake and quiet, moon shining in, my ear beating like a drum.

In the morning Roger gets coffee and tells me we need to go to the horse races before summer's over, that we should fly to California in September to camp in Yosemite, how when winter comes he'll be calling me at six in the morning to go skiing, and that he's going leave his toothbrush at my place. I nod to all the ideas and am surprised Roger has thrown us into the future, and has thought about seeing me six months down the road.

“What do you mean by all this?” I say.

“What are you getting at?” He sits on my couch in his boxer shorts, and drinks coffee. He has a tattoo on his upper arm of a Chinese character that looks like a teapot. I walk over to him and run my fingers over it. He won’t tell me what it means, he says, until the time is right.

“You and me?”

“It just means we should do these things because we can.”

*

Three weeks later on a Saturday, Roger and I get on and off a plane together and rent a car. He tells me he’s only been on a plane six times in his life, and that he’s never liked it. He tells me people should drive, to know how they’ve gotten to where they’re going.

“Can’t drive across the ocean,” I say. “What if we had to go to Hawaii or Paris?”

“I’ve never had to go to those places,” he says.

“Okay,” I say. “Was this a mistake?”

“I just never took a jaunt before.”

“It’s a wedding, Roger.”

“Anything that’s less than two days and across the country is a jaunt,” he says. “Face it, Dorie, you’re a jaunter.”

We stop at the hotel to change and Roger wants to do it, but I tell him there’s no time. We left early that morning, and go back tomorrow evening, and I wish we could stay longer, but I couldn’t get time off work. We find our way from the highway onto a rural route that takes us to an old stone house with a sweeping lawn where white chairs are set up, white tents with tables underneath are set for dinner, and a full bar is nestled in a gazebo.

“I could use a beer,” Roger says, not moving from his seat in the car. “And a cornfield.”

“Later,” I tell him. “We have all night.”

We step out of the car. He unbuttons his sport coat, and shakes out his pant legs.

“I hate suits,” he says. “I feel constricted.”

“You look very nice,” I say, and take his arm in mine. I move us towards a group of people standing on the lawn, all familiar faces I haven’t seen in a year. We hug, make small talk about the big wedding day, the beautiful weather, and people shake Roger’s hand and tell him how nice it is to meet him. Roger stands with his hands in his pockets, looking around, listening to talk about places he’s never been, and reminiscences about times he never knew. People talk about their jobs at banks and ad agencies, about their theater projects and art gallery showings, and vacations taken to St. Johns, Turkey, Vietnam. I smile and nod. I tell them I’ve been learning a lot about flowers and shrubs. People tell me how they think it’s great I live in Idaho. Think it’s courageous to be so far away and on my own. None of them have ever been there, aren’t sure they could ever live there, but would like to come for a visit. They want to sit in a hot spring, ride a horse, and eat a potato.

My ex-boyfriend from college, Stevens, shows up driving a Mercedes. A big black Mercedes with leather seats. Stevens waves and walks toward us.

“What kind of people do you know?” Roger whispers in my ear.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“It’s not your fault,” he says.

Stevens is a short New Yorker, and wears a dark grey suit with a blue gingham bowtie. He comes over and kisses me on the cheek and introduces himself to Roger.

“Nice car there Steve,” Roger says.

“What are you driving these days, Roger?”

Roger puts his arm on my waist and says, “A pick-up with a window that doesn't roll down. Tell me, what do you do to have a honey of a car like that?”

“I write car reviews, and what do you do to have a pick-up?”

“None of your business.”

“I like that,” Stevens laughs. Then he clears his throat and adjusts his glasses. “A man who doesn’t give anything away. What’d you say we get a drink?”

“You bet,” Roger says. Stevens puts his hand on Roger’s shoulder like they’re old friends, and they walk to the bar in the gazebo together.

I stand alone and watch Roger and Stevens in the gazebo. The trees are full and green. The sunlight comes down in sharp and warm angles, the kind of light that lights up eyes from within and makes people’s hair glow on the tops of their heads. It’s a perfect evening for a wedding, and I want to be in love.

My old roommate from college, Emily Takamatsu, walks up and tells me I've got one sexy cowboy and that she might have to vacation in Idaho more often. She wears a black strapless dress and a soft red shawl the color of cranberries. My ear starts ticking, it feels like water in the ear, and I tilt my head to one side to see if might help.

“He’s nice,” I say.

“I heard western men are hard to pin down.” She holds a pink petit four between two fingers and eats it in two bites. “I heard on NPR people in the west are still accustomed to all the land space and have that frontier, exploring side to them. Has he been hard to pin down?”

I light a cigarette, take off my heels, and stand barefoot on the grass. “Not too hard.”

“Does he ride horses?” Emily smiles, wiping the corners of her mouth.

“No, but he owns a lot of guns, and sometimes he takes me to shoot them.”

She holds her drink in front of her lips. “What a turn on. Well, don’t let him keep you in the West. Return back here, we miss you. Or as my Japanese grandfather would say about Japan, ‘Emily, return is to here, this where you belong,’” and she points her finger at the ground in front of her.

“I miss you too,” I say, “return is to here.”

“I want to meet Roger Roger,” she says, so we walk over to the gazebo where Stevens is pretending to shoot a shotgun.

“Forget ducks, Steve, you want to go for elk and big game,” Roger says.

Stevens puts his arm around Roger as we step up to them, and he says, “I like this man, no bullshit, this here’s the Marlboro man, ladies.”

Roger extends his hand to Emily and says, “I like to call myself full-flavored.”

Emily shakes his hand, giggles and feigns being weak in the knees. “One taste and you never go back?” she says.

“That’s right,” Roger says, and gives her the raised eyebrow. Then Roger stands next to me and kisses on my neck.

Stevens shakes his head. “Jesus, the man’s all beef jerky and blow jobs,” he says.

Roger whispers in my ear he thinks Stevens is gay. “He wants me bad,” Roger says, and bites my ear. “Only gay men wear bowties.”

I turn, my lips right about to touch his. “A lot of people want something they can’t have.”

“Really,” he says. “Is that what it is?” He takes a step back, turns himself around in a full circle. “Yeah, all this fucking lack out here, people must be desperate.” Then he walks to the bar for another beer.

*

We get back from Pennsylvania the next night. We don’t talk on the ride home from the airport. Roger pulls up in front of my apartment, and gets out to hand me my bags from the flatbed of his truck. He sets them on the road, and says, “An interesting weekend.”

“It’s different,” I say.

“Did I do all right?”

“It wasn’t about that, Roger.”

Roger squeezes my arm. “I’ve got to pick up my dog. He gets pissed when I’m gone. He eats shoes.”

I pick up my suitcase and garment bag and kiss him on the cheek. “Thanks.”

“Okay, Dorie,” he says, and walks back to his truck and gets in. I stand in the street and watch his taillights until they’re small red dots that disappear around a bend in the dark.

*

Late the next afternoon Roger and I go swimming in the river, and on our way home, it’s still hot out, and so dry it seems you could spit and it would evaporate mid-air. The heat has been with us for weeks, heat that doesn't belong in mountain towns in August. And there have been so many fires. None so close that I have seen flames, but a haze moves in the air, covering whole mountains, giving me a cough and red eyes. There are so many fires in the west there's nothing to be done until snow and rain come fall.

“You know, I like this life here,” I say.

“Good,” he says. “It’s a good life.”

“I’m sorry about the wedding.”

“You don’t need to talk.” He puts a finger over his lips.

“I didn’t bring you as some token Idaho cowboy.”

“Not today Dorie, I'm tired from sun and have too much on my mind.”

“Like what?”

“Some things I keep private.”

We’re wet and sunburned. The land is dry and brown, and we drive through a canyon that’s steep and striated. My window’s down, the only window that goes down, and the hot air blows in on us. I’m drowsy.

“What are we doing?”

“Tomorrow Dorie, I'll come over tomorrow night and you can talk all you want.”

My arm’s hanging out of the window when a pebble or bug or something whacks my hand, at seventy miles per hour, it hits me like a bullet and stings. My eyes get wet so I shut them. I feel foolish.

*

Roger doesn't come over the next night so I can talk all I want. He doesn't call the next day either. Finally, after three days, Roger comes over. He comes to get what's his -- a video that's overdue, a CD, and while he's at it he picks up his tee-shirt and toothbrush. I figure if I don't say something now I might not see him again, since he's clearing out his toothbrush. While he's finding his CD I say, “Can you stay a minute?”

“I've got to get going, I have things to do.”

I can't believe he's just going to walk out of here, like he never knew me in the first place. Just walk out of here and find someone else who can have fun and keep their heart out of it. Although I know that’s not all that’s going on here. He’s half out the door, holding everything he came for.

“I have something to say,” I say.

“Do I need to sit down for this?”

“I don't think so, but could we shut the door?”

He shuts the door and waits. I want to ask him about the horse races, California and skiing. I want to ask him what he wants, because I don't really want it to end. I just started feeling something for the first time in a long time and I'm not ready for it to stop. I know it’s selfish, and that we're not a good match, me and Roger, but we're good enough for now.

“I wish things were different,” I say.

Roger shrugs, looks at the doorknob. “They are the way they are, Dorie.”

“Roger.”

“I like you,” he says, “I’ll see you around.”

*

Three weeks go by and no Roger. I don’t see him around. The beating in my ear is alarming. I think for sure a doctor is needed. I’m afraid my heart is going to bust out of my head. I can't sleep and I think about Roger more than what’s healthy. I call him twice but he doesn't call back. I drive by his house late at night looking for his truck, but it’s never there. I feel crazy, like some sick stalker. Then I come home and crawl into bed, my pretty bed with mosquito netting. I cry a little for us not working out, even though I’m not sure where we could have gone. Then I cry harder for wanting love so badly I'd try to squeeze it out of Roger, and for not understanding what the hell return is to here means, even though I can’t stop thinking about it. Return is to where? I don’t know where I belong.

The nights are cooling off, and the air feels tighter. I know the trees will be turning soon, reds and oranges like paint, like nothing you'd think a tree could turn in September. And then snow and rain will come, cover us in clouds, and put out some of the fires.

I wake at three in the morning to the woman upstairs walking around on hardwood floors. It sounds as though she keeps falling, or tripping over furniture in the dark. It goes on and on, so I walk upstairs barefoot in my pajamas and stand outside her door to listen and figure it out. I'm about to knock to ask her to keep it down when I hear voices, a male and female, and the sounds of bodies settling into a bed. The bed must be close to the door, because I hear them clearly, their voices carrying out to where I stand in the hallway a good three feet from the door. They talk about blueberry pancakes in the morning and taking a hike and fishing in the river. Then there’s the sound of kissing, and the women lets out a sigh like I’ve never heard before. It isn’t a tired sigh, but something high and airy, as if she has everything she needs. It is a sigh of contentment. I take the stairs down to my apartment trying to mimic the sigh, but I can’t find the right pitch, or the right release of air.