Completely Confused and Utterly Clear (???)
Joe is chest-deep in a deep irrigation ditch he and the apprentices have been hacking at all summer. His curly, white hair bobs in and out of the hole like a forest gnome peeking around the forest. When he stops to get more tools, I shovel silt out of the cold, deep pool of fresh mountain water, exposing the newly placed PVC pipe that is in position to redirect water. The new pipe will allow water to be filtered through layers of rock and clay. After we lay plastic down, Joe steps back into the hole for to fit the piping and cut a hole.
Which leaves Riley and I to pitch our shovels deep into the chocolate brown earth, sifting for stones that we will wash and prepare as gravel to fill the chest-deep hole. We determine fairly quickly that it works best if one of us shovels while the other rinses on a large framed screen twenty feet below, where an unruly black plastic pipe juts from the creek as a makeshift hose.
“Did you go to the show?” I ask Riley, expecting him to say no.
“Yeah, I did,” he says, grabbing a bucket of rinsed gravel from my hands and swapping it for a full, dirty one. He sees my jaw drop open, purposefully exaggerating defeat, so he adds: “And I thought about calling you as I was rolling out. I thought that would be the nice thing to do. But I was spending the night with friends and really couldn’t take you. And I had all these plans to make everyone hamburgers, see, and I was afraid the grocery store would close since it was a holiday – remember when stores used to close early on holidays? – So I had to get there quick, and so yeah, I didn’t call.” He is all the way back up to the gravel hole now and has to shout in order for me to hear him over the bubbling creek.
“It’s OK, Riley, really,” I say. “But how was the show?”
“It was pretty cool. I got up and sang back up vocals on a whim for the last song, so that was fun.” Joe has his back turned in the deep hole and Riley gestures quickly, grabbing an air mic and singing to an eighty’s foreplay song. “You know that one?”
I laugh and turn back to rinsing the gravel. The water feels cool across my hands and soothes small cuts that the grit and gravel make in my skin.
Riley comes back down the mountain and we swap buckets again. “But I’m sorry I didn’t call.”
“Well to be honest, I was hoping you would call. But it’s ok because maybe you’ll call another time.” The words jump out before I can stop them.
Another five minutes passes during which we shout fragmented sentences back and forth about small-nothings. But when we swap buckets again, he leans in this time, dangerously close yet still far enough to be played off as functional closeness for the sake of the bucket swap. “Plus I was there with my date,” he says like a close-range punch.
I lean in even closer, our hands gripping the same handle on a bucket full of rocks that we hold, suspended. I look him in the eye and say, as lightheartedly as I can, “Well does your date eat hamburgers?”
“Yeah, she does,” he takes the bucket and turns back up the mountain. “With blue cheese and shiitakes.”
Another five minutes passes. We make eye contact for a bucket swap and meet halfway this time. “It was good of you to tell me though,” I say.
“Tell you what?”
“Tell me that you had a date.” At this point all internal alarms are firing off inside my brain, begging me to stop talking, stop feeling, stop everything. “See, that’s good. It makes things very clear.”
“Well it would have been too presumptuous of me. Don’t you think? It’s not like we can just come up to each other and hand out little cards that say ‘Single’ or ‘Dating’ or ‘Queer.’ It’s not easy like that. Oh yeah, ‘Hey, Katey, nice to meet you, by the way, I’m dating someone so, you know…’” His face is expressive yet his tone is gentle and entirely convincing. “Besides, how am I supposed to say I’ve got a girlfriend I’m trying to break up with that I’m still hanging around with? That probably wouldn’t fit on the card.” Without thinking he grabs both buckets and turns back up the mountain. I let him get to the top, then climb up to the gravel hole and point out his mistake.
Joe grunts and mutters to himself in the deep hole. He can’t seem to find any of his tools so I begin to place the scattered tools neatly in a row within arm’s reach of the hole. “Ahhh! There are those scissors! Hey, yeah, thanks, all right…Now if I could just…”
On my way back down I can only laugh to myself. I know a good percentage of my infatuation is simply to distract myself from the answer to this question: Whose woman am I, if not my own? And besides, Riley will be leaving in three weeks, I’m too busy to give more time away as it is, and now’s not the time.
But oh, I like it when he rambles, getting lost in his own story, leaning in and making hand gestures to depict action. I like that he has done insane backpacking trips in the Sierra-Nevadas that most people couldn’t outlive and I want to know what it is inside a man, precisely, that sets things like that in motion. I like that he lives simply, stays dirty-from-the-earth most days, and smells like a mix of homegrown tobacco, patchuli, and a body odor that just killsme (in a good way).
“Hey down there,” he has to raise his hands up high and cup them over his mouth to make the sound of his voice carry. I look up and notice that this gesture pulls his shirt up just above the waistline of his cut-off Dickies shorts and add to the list: I like that he’s insanely attractive. “What about that new movie that’s opening in SmallTown, NC tonight at 12:01am? That one with Johnny Depp”
Oh God, Johnny Depp and Riley in the same theatre, at the same time? System overload! Hormonal breakdown! Reproductive reactions!
There is a long silence.
“Do you want to go?” I ask, wondering now if I’ve finished his thought or if he was too chicken to ask or if I just asked him out.
Joe pokes his head out as high as he can from the deep hole and looks at Riley, then looks at me, then leans into his shovel resting his head on the top of the handle for a better view.
“I brought you cold gingerade tea from the coffeehouse and I have to go now. I have to go to yoga class,” I say abruptly. “So you should come taste it now, before I go, k?” I walk down the mountain without waiting for a response.
We make it to the porch of the Herb Shop where Riley hands me a pint of his homemade beer and I hand him the gingerade tea. We sip each other’s drinks, then swap back in the same motion that we worked with the buckets all afternoon. Buffy the dog kisses my fingers and I begin to pet her roughly on the top of her rump.
“Why do dogs like that spot so much anyway?” Riley asks, exhaling a steady sigh of satisfaction from the special coffeehouse drink.
Slightly embarrassed but more entertained by the irony of the answer, I explain to Riley in strictly biological terms that dogs like to be rubbed on their rumps, female dogs especially, because when a male dog is mating with a female his chest bumps and rubs the back of her rump repeatedly. “So basically when you pet a dog their it reminds them of being humped,” I let down my guard.
“Oh, I guess that’s why I like my belly rubbed when I’m humping,” he says this in a manner that is somehow flirtatious and sardonic. “Except I usually like to get it all over with quick. It’s just a mating thing, you know, I don’t even like to touch when I’m humping. Touching is gross.” By now he is completely kidding and I cannot help but wonder if he is describing the exact opposite of his true preferences. This, of course, paints a wild and quick fantasy in my mind about Riley and mating and…
“Look, the movie would be too late tonight and Joe still needs my help. Let’s do it another time at a more decent hour,” he says as I walk down the porch steps in the direction of my car. ’Do IT another time at a decent hour?’ Oh! The movie, right. God help me, I’ve got to get out of here now.
“Ok. It’s better for me too,”
“And I’ll see you next week then, because I’m going to be gone all weekend,” he calls out. By now I’m below the deck and Riley’s boyish, twinkling face is hidden behind the railing paneling and some overgrowth. But I take two steps back up to be at eye-level with the edge of the porch. There is an opening in the siding and I peek my head through just enough to frame a view of his face perfectly.
“I’ll be here Sunday to make more tea though, will you be here Sunday night?” I ask.
“No, definitely not. Won’t be back ‘till Monday.”
“I’ll see you Tuesday then.”
“Right, have a good weekend Katey,” he says finally, and as he gazes at me a mixed look of sincerity, wonder, doubt, and slight attraction spreads across his face.