“You can never tell where the standing water is, in this neighborhood,” she says to me as we linger on the corner, waiting for traffic to pass so we can cross. It’s been raining for four days and here and there sewers have backed up — stopped up by leaves, twigs, wrappers, plastic bags, the debris of many dry months surprised by rain. The roads are shiny with the rain, and it’s impossible for drivers to see if the streets are solid. They can’t see the standing water before they drive into it. When they do, they slow almost to a halt, waves welling up on each side of their tires, the water almost reaching the underside of their cars. Now and then, someone gets stuck in a low compact — stalls out in the unexpected flood, and the cops have to come to push them out. Or a tow truck shows up, lights flashing and engine gunning and winch whirring. I’ve been out on this corner watching cars get pulled from the drink several times over the last few days. It’s too gray and wet to do much else.
“Go — just go –” I wave a tentative Subaru by, its driver hunched over the wheel, wiping condensation from the inside of the windshield. The car nudges through water at a shy crawl; when it’s past, I step off the curb into the drink. Dark and shiny with automotive oils, it swirls around my boots.
I’m glad I’m wearing high boots.
“Watch yourself,” I tell my girlfriend, giving her my arm as she jumps from the curb, her long legs spanning the drink. Her boots are lower and less sturdy than mine, and I wait as she picks out shallows I cannot see, stepping between puddles as though clairvoyant.
We slosh across the street, squintint to see asphalt as a car inches towards us — going the wrong way up a one-way street. My girlfriend raises her arm and signals them to turn down the side street we just came up. The driver, a young man smoking a cigarette, looks bewildered and damp. He slows almost to a stop in the water, then seems to remember himself and turns the way she points. As we step up on the curb, he drives quickly off, leaving a wake slapping towards us.
It’s been raining for four days, and we’ve both been wet almost that long. At first, it was fun to run a cross the street to the laundromat on my girlfriend’s block, seeing if I could get her clothes home clean — and reasonably dry. But after two days, her clean clothes wouldn’t dry completely, no matter how long I kept them in the drier, no matter how close I hung them to her radiator.
Now, we’re headed into town to take our minds off this rain. She’s got a list of books she wants to buy from a used book dealer, and I’ve got library fines to pay. We make our way along the lumpy asphalt pavement through the park at the end of her street, stepping around puddles, cursing softly when we splash water up our legs in spite of our care. Over her head, I hold my wide umbrella, trying to keep her dry as she weaves and ducks ahead of me. She tells me she gave up trying to stay dry a day before I did, and I don’t need to work so hard trying to keep her out of the rain, but I can’t help myself. No sense in both of us having to get soaked. Not if I have anything to say about it. I’m wearing my bright yellow slicker and high boots and keep my one free hand deep in my pocket, while the other hand stays outstretched, my cold fist tight around the umbrella handle, shielding her as best I can. Rain water streams down my sleeve, tracing a chilly, wet stripe to my armpit. She’s wearing her long oilskin raincoat and is swaddled in scarf-hat-mitten wool. I wear a wide-brimmed hat that keeps most of the rain out of my eyes. We both stay warm, but she stays drier than I. That’s all I ask.
As we negotiate the potholed path, I think about her parents: I met them for the first time just before the rain started. It was a fluke, really — I stumbled upon her escorting them back to their car when they’d stopped in to surprise her last Friday afternoon. They’d brought cookies. She was surprised, alright. About three months ago, after telling her folks about dating me (a woman — not her first, but the first she’s ever told them about, the first who’s lasted longer than a week with her) and fighting bitterly with them, she’d asked them to never come visit — they’d made a point of telling her she was ruining her life by ‘indulging her proclivities’ and did a damn’ lousy job disguising the fact they were trying to break us up and get her “back together” with the guy she’d grown up next door to. Whenever they called after that, she was short with them and never let me speak to them long — even when it was I who picked up the phone.
But suddenly there they were, cookies still in hand. And there I was, pulling up short as I rounded the corner to her block, stopping by on my way home from work to get an early start on the weekend with her, wondering if I should draw near, as she showed them back to their car. And there they still were, stalling for time on the sidewalk, taking in the length of her block as though to recall the sight of her apartment building was as good as crawling into her mind/heart/will, looking up at the same time as she, to spot me standing still as a deer in headlights, unable to beat a hasty retreat, wanting to wait out the moment of discovery or even pretend it never happened and that I didn’t know her at all, and pass them all by with a nod that only she could decipher.
But they knew. They saw the look on her face, and I couldn’t hold back any longer. I walked into their midst, shields up and shivering. She introduced me to them briefly — curt ‘hellos’ exchanged, avoiding eye contact, sizing each other up:
I, calloused of hand and chiselled of face, my jaw prominent and my look harsh from weeks of cold, cold weather…
Her parents tall and silent, stoop-shouldered but still upright and with a stiffness about them that bespoke years of rigorous obligation to someone else’s code — years that laid the foundation for their daughter’s ultimate escape, years that taught her to steer clear of their code and drove her straight into my waiting arms…
I, the renegade mystery woman their daughter had kept from them, in an effort to shelter them from the fact of my much-pierced body (though not so much that I’d set off a metal detector), my eyebrows, nose, lips and ears heavy with hypoallergenic stainless steel… sparing them the sight of my flat-top haircut and tattoos… mentioning only that I ‘work in the trades’ and I don’t care much for frills and dresses and such — an effort to spare them that had almost certainly resulted in them imagining the worst…
These, the people who’d tried to take her from me — exchange me for some guy she’d never much liked… When they saw me at last, they seemed almost relieved — my haircut and tattoos and most of my metal were covered by my cap and scarf and jacket.
Standing in the street, I’d thought, “All that effort for nothing.” We’d still met. I’d still run into her parents. They’d still gotten a look at me. They’d still shown up at her front door. With cookies. They were good cookies too; I’d insisted on accepting them, to her mother’s relief.
We’d all still gotten our feet wet.
Now, alone in the elements, we jog through the park, she with wet pantlegs and I with sweating torso. The rain flies sideways on gusts of winter wind, and the just-above-freezing temperatures cut to the bone. The grass of our shortcut to the main sidewalk is slick, and I jump ahead of her, turning and holding out my hand to help her up to the sidewalk that will take us downtown. I pull her up the little grassy-slippery hill, still holding her hand as we walk into town. We drop hands, though as, we negotiate more puddles and nimbly dodge the spray of passing cars. I stay behind, the umbrella over her head, the rain in my face, water starting to pool in the bottoms of my boots. My attention is fixed on her protection, and I barely notice when a truck spashes me. Keep her dry — keep her dry, echoes in my head, as I turn the umbrella to block rain on the shifting wind.
To be continued…