A Tiny Piece Of Gold
"We should find a place to camp."
Those were the first words Richard had spoken in twenty miles, the first since I had reminded him that he should quit smoking before the baby was born.
He had thrown me one of his "annoyed" looks, the one where his mouth is set so firm, it makes a bulge in his jaw line, and then heīd kept his eyes on the road and his heart somewhere that I couldnīt follow.
At first, I felt like crying. After all, I wasnīt asking him to quit today. There were almost eight months until my due date.
I tried to annoy him by taking out his Garth Brooks tape and replacing it with the Beatles. I hummed along and chatted about the scenery. About how we should have gone to County Line and camped at the beach instead of Angels Camp, a place I expected to be dry and dusty.
Sure, the giant redwoods were gorgeous, but nothing compared to the Pacific Ocean with its melody of crashing waves and soft sea air.
I brought up Mark Twain, Richards least favorite author. I drove home the point that Twain wrote his first story about the county we were driving through.
You know, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
No matter what I said, Richard ignored me.
He had kept his mind on something else. I knew I was being a bitch. He knew I was being a bitch. Everyone we passed on Highway 49 probably knew I was being a bitch.
"Well?" Richard finally said.
Should we stop?
"Sure," I answered.
He resumed his silence. He didnīt even blink his eyes.
A few minutes later, we pulled into a dirt parking lot. As we unloaded the car, I searched for something to say that wouldnīt offend him, that would loosen his jaw. But he spoke first.
"Letīs get married," he suggested, as he lugged the tent out of the trunk of the car. "What do you say?"
His words caught me with a sleeping bag in each hand and a Mexican blanket over my shoulder, unable to move or talk.
What he was really saying was just the opposite. That we should consider an abortion. I could tell by the way he wouldnīt look me in the eyes. Iīd never been proposed to before, but I imagined it as a moment when my lover would gaze into my eyes, hold my hand, and caress me with words of tenderness. Something like on the movie of the week. Then I would cry, the only proper response to such a happy moment. I mean, I didnīt expect bells, but I did expect a little more than, "What do you say?"
I lowered the bags to the ground and sat down on top of one of them. With the tip of my tennis shoe, I drew a circle in the dirt. I couldnīt find an answer.
"Think about it," he said and began stomping around looking for level ground.
I have always wished that Richard hadnt been on the rebound when I met him. But he was. His wife had just left him, and he said that although they had never gotten along very well, he thought they should have tried to make it work for the children. In fact, I think I fell in love with him because of the things he told me about his sons. Now it was for precisely the same reasons that I hated him.
He was a good father. I wanted him to want to be that kind of father to our child.
When Richard gets angry or annoyed, he shuts himself off from the rest of the world. At least, my part of it. What goes on in his head is probably meaningful to him, but if you stay too long upstairs, itīs harder to come back down. And sometimes he stays up there so long, I wonder if he remembers what sent him there in the first place.
Weīve only had one real fight in the two years weīve been dating. We donīt fight because he holds everything in, and by the time heīs ready to talk, Iīm ready to say just about anything to make things okay.
Now, as he marched around looking for a good spot to pitch the tent, I knew he was so far upstairs it would take all night to get him back down.
According to Richard, putting up a tent is a scientific procedure. You clear the area of rocks, smooth the ground, and lay out the canvas.
As I watched Richard I realized he wanted our life together to be that well-ordered. He wanted to plan it out perfectly. And this baby was definitely not in his plans.
His wife was the opposite of me. Sheīd hung a calendar in the kitchen with reminders for every day of the week. Orange mugs lined the shelf above the plates they matched. Sunday was always brunch at the local deli. That sort of thing. He had said it got boring. That she was boring. That he loved my spontaneity. It was what drew him to me.
Funny, but that spontaneity is what had gotten us into this situation. Sex on the kitchen table while spaghetti cooked on the stove and my diaphragm slept snug in its bathroom drawer.
What had drawn him to me was now driving him away.
I was famished. Iīm always hungry these days. So I opened up a can of sardines and some crackers. I took a beer out of the cooler for Richard and a caffeine-free coke for myself. We sat at the picnic table, eating in silence like an old married couple.
Twice my hand rested on his knee. The first time, he moved it away gently. The second time, I moved it before he had the chance.
His last remark left no room for small talk. No observations on the clear blue skyline, the squirrels running up to our feet hoping for food, the smell of pine trees.
Words filled my head. Words that couldnīt be said until he was ready to listen.
In two years, the word marriage had never been spoken unless we were discussing his ex wife or unless I had been asked by yet another girlfriend to be her bridesmaid.
After finishing his beer, Richard took out his gold panning equipment. He had about an hour of daylight left. I wanted to settle the question that sat between us. He wanted to bend over a stream, slosh the water back and forth across his pan and look for some elusive bit of gold. I was looking for something more elusive.
The stream was a short walk from our campsite. I grabbed my book, a jacket and a chair and followed behind Richard.
We hadnīt been there for more than ten minutes when Richard got that look in his eyes. He was going across. Someone had connected a cable about six feet high to thick tree trunks on either side of the stream and by following the path made by the rocks and holding onto the cable he could cross easily.
There was more sunlight over there. It was also, I thought, as far as he could get from me, at least until the camping trip was over.
"Itīs almost dark," I cautioned.
He didnīt answer. He just nodded and then headed for the opposite shore.
Slowly he made his way from rock to rock, grabbing the overhead cable with one hand, his panning bag with the other. When he was safely on the far shore, I opened my book and tried to read.
But I couldnīt. I kept stealing glances at Richard. Every time I looked at his strong upper body and muscular legs, at the way his golden brown hair fell over his eyes, my stomach fluttered. He was by far the handsomest man I had ever been with.
I closed my eyes and imagined us as a family. I must have fallen asleep, because I awoke to the sound of rushing water. It took me a second to realize where I was and what was happening. The dam had been opened, and the water gushed by at an incredible speed, slamming into the rocks, spraying water high into the air.
Panic rose into my chest. The sky was a deep crimson, making it hard to see Richard. But I knew he was still on the other side.
Frantic, I stood up and began calling his name. Finally, he emerged from behind a tree. I waved. He waved back.
His lips moved, but with the rushing water I couldnīt hear a word he said. After a few seconds, he waved again and then grabbed onto the cable with one hand, holding the bag of equipment in the other. He stepped out onto the first rock, then onto another. I held my breath and watched.
With the next step, his foot slipped. He teetered, and then finally regained his balance.
"Drop the bag," I shouted. He couldnīt have heard me, but a second later he let the bag fall into the stream and grabbed onto the cable with both hands.
My heart raced.
Each step he took was a struggle. Heīd worn large baggy pants with lots of pockets, and now the pockets filled with water and weighed him down.
Midway across, he stopped. I bit down on my lip, drawing blood. My fists clenched into tight balls.
He was clearly exhausted. I didnīt think he could make it another step. He just stood there, hanging onto the cable, resting his legs. The water was getting the better of him.
Then I noticed that Richard was staring at me. And in that moment, I realized that although he might be afraid of what he couldnīt control, he wasnīt afraid to try.
God, Richard, I prayed, just make it across. Iīll never annoy you again.
Then he slowly started forward. One slow step after another and finally he stood only a few feet away. His teeth clattered. His lips were blue. I flung my jacket around him. It hardly covered his shoulders, but it was something dry.
Silently, we headed back for camp.
But this was a different kind of silence. Without actually holding hands, I felt his strong grip leading me.
Back at camp, I boiled water and made us both a cup of chicken noodle soup. Richard opened up a can of oysters and box of crackers. It wasnīt a fancy meal, but it was the best one weīd eaten in weeks. Richard made himself a scotch on the rocks. I had apple juice.
Eventually the numbness left his fingers and the flush left his face.
Rummaging through my overnight bag for my gloves, I realized he hadnīt had a cigarette. Maybe he was going to quit, after all.
Then a few minutes later, he reached inside his jacket pocket. I waited for him to pull out his pack of Camels, and I promised myself Iīd keep my mouth shut. Instead, he pulled out a tiny vial.
"I found this for you," he said. "Itīs not much. You can hardly see it, but..." He held it out for me to take. "Itīs real gold."
Even though the bottle magnified the piece of gold, it was still almost too small to see. Yet, I knew I would see it in my mind forever.
We rolled out the sleeping bags, zipped them together to make a double bed and climbed inside.
Richard put his hand on my belly.
"Can you feel him move?" he asked me.
"Not yet," I answered. "Sheīs really tiny."
"I love you," he whispered. He leaned over and kissed me. "But I donīt want another family that I donīt live with."
"I donīt want that either."
I held the tiny vial in my hand. And I realized like the tiny piece of gold, love is sometimes hard to see unless you know itīs there.