There is a heat wave sitting over this valley. Last night, after a late evening of Nanny Duty, I was driving home with my windows down. The temperature had dropped to the eighties, and an enormous lighting storm was brewing over the river to the north. Light flashed down every few seconds, silently, branching out to radio towers perched on mountain ridges above the city. The show marched towards climax the closer I got to home. Crossing the river, the scene opened up and a million iterations of light shot down towards earth in the expanse of sky upstream.
I almost never drive with my windows down, here. The valley is so polluted that I feel the grime on my face after a 15 minute ride (also, the temperatures tend towards extremes of heat and cold.) There have been “ozone alerts” for the past two days, the smog and pollution have been so bad in the heat. I hate that I live in a place where children are told to stay inside because the air is so poisonous. Sometimes I think I am living in a dystopian novel. As I crossed the river, wind in my face and Nyssa’s ears flapping, I smelled the water – all dead fish and drying riverweed and driftwood – and the storm above it, and laid my head back and smiled. For an instant, I smelled the Lowell Point sand-flats on a low-tide morning. Almost there.
Yesterday morning, I lost my wedding ring. I had put it on the window sill with my glasses to wash my face. When I reached for them (blind as a bat) the glasses fell and the wedding band disappeared. I turned the bathroom upside down, going over every corner with my fingers, and sweeping tissue under the radiator (the dust bunnies were rabid.) No luck. I finally realized that the ring must have slid into the radiator vent (the evil, unregulated radiator, bane of our winter existence here in cheap-rent land.) I ran my hands over the monolithic unit and found no screws. I kicked the vent, grabbed keys and ran out the door to work.
I apparently have bad luck with rings. When I was in High School, I got a then-popular (for some) “true love waits” ring for my sixteenth birthday. A week later, I jumped up and swung from the metal bracing above the senior locker-alcove at my school. I had just finished a conversation with an upperclassman I had a crush on, and was trying desperately to act “cool” in some misguided tomboy way. When my hands slid off the brace, my ring caught and I hung for a terrified moment biting my tongue, struggling to grab the bar again and lift myself off. Feigning coolness, I dropped to the ground, grabbed my throbbing hand and started walking briskly towards the nurse’s office. When I finally got up the courage to look down, I was trailing pools of blood, the ring bent nearly in half around the offending finger. I never dared put on another, until Peter dropped to his knees last September.
Last Thanksgiving, my engagement ring slipped off while I was throwing snowballs for Nyssa after an early winter storm. A sparkly diamond in a field of foot-deep sparkly snow is worse than needle-in-haystack odds. We spent a week sweeping with a rented metal detector. When the melt began and crows (with their penchant for trinkets) came in droves to pick off the emerging earthworms, I gave up hope.
When I got home last night, I set to work on the radiator. I busted out my trusty leatherman (tomboy still) found the hidden screws and started dismantling. Although for my efforts we solved the mystery of when the heat-vents are open, my ring was nowhere in the unit. Peter got a coat hanger and started fishing in the no-mans-land behind the thing, but only managed to catch several more disturbingly mutant rabid dust bunnies. I got into bed, sweating despite the open windows, fan and brewing storm.
Friday is my birthday. Although discussions with my family about gifts and Peter’s family about celebrations have kept it in mind, until last night I hadn’t really paid attention to how close it was getting. I have had a rash of bad birthdays. Last year stands out particularly; I was alone, driving south to the job in Utah after leaving Peter with every ounce of junk I own strapped under a tarp on top of my car. I had stopped for the night in Watson Lake, Yukon, known for its sign-post forest and not much else. I treated myself to a room (after nights of car-camping, and a week more to come) and a real sit-down dinner. I was tired from traveling, stressed from moving, apprehensive about the decision I had made to leave Alaska and Peter, worried about leaving my hound with another family for the summer, wondering if I could cut 8-day shifts at a Wilderness Therapy company in the desert, and suffering from generalized road-fatigue paranoia. A mess, really. And though Nyssa is good company for bad moods, I longed for a person, this of all days.
On the way back to the motel, I was accosted by a drunken local man. He staggered up to us, made lewd commentary on my body and blocked the way, towering above me, leaning down, reeking of body odor and booze. A group of similarly inebriated locals watched from the porch of a church a few yards away, guffawing and waiting to see what would happen. It was eleven at night and broad daylight, a few weeks from Solstice in the North Country. Nobody else was around. I gritted my teeth to keep from shaking, glared at him, told him on no uncertain terms that I was to be left alone, and moved around him, avoiding the outreached but unsteady hands, fully aware that they would all see which of the two road-side hotels I walked into, that they knew I was alone.
I can only assume Nyssa, for her part, knew the man was harmless. Drunk, yes, but obviously severely mentally handicapped as well. His eyes rolled and remained unfocused, his face contorted at unfamiliar angles and his gait was more practiced in its unsteadiness than even a common drunk can manage when truly stumbling. Ridgebacks are known for their ferocity in protection, but more so for their careful discrimination about when to offer it. She has before. This time, she did not.
Nothing came of it, of course. The man followed me, breathing down my neck and uttering ear-tingling threats until I turned and screamed at him, at which point he fell laughing to the gravel beside the road rolling in dismissive mirth at my fear. I stumbled into my room and cried into the stiff, anonymous pillow, recalling in a rush a myriad of true violation, moments of powerlessness that feel then and evermore like paralyzing nightmares when they are recalled. Nyssa tried all evening to lick my face dry, to curl into a ball at my knees, to lay her head on my feet or tummy, but I would not let her. A small growl would have sufficed. I felt for all the world that my own dog had betrayed me.
It was not a good day.
This year, I will again spend the auspicious day on the road. Peter and I are driving to a wedding in the midwest, visiting friends on the way there and back, and camping out on a river instead of shelling out for a hotel. Nyssa is staying with the landlords (I wonder if we will ever see her again?) and we will be gone for three wonderful cross country days.
On Christmas Day, Peter noticed the snow had melted, walked out into the field and right up to where the engagement ring was sitting in grass, waiting for him.
Last night, I woke up to Peter slipping my wedding band – which had rolled out of the crack in the bathroom door, and had been sitting on the carpet in the hall the whole time – back on my finger.
Today, the temperature and humidity have dropped and I no longer live in fear of short-circuiting my computer by sweating into the keyboard. As an added treat, the landlords came blustering up the stairs with a window air conditoner and a plate of pancakes a few minutes ago.
Tomorrow, we will pack the car and start eating up miles, heading West: a sweet foretaste of the journey to come.