Leah Browning

Gravel

The therapist said Brendan wanted me to be his mother. That’s why he kept kicking little holes in the wall and pulling his own hair. “I don’t want to be his mother,” I said. We’d been dating for four years. I felt like that went without saying. “Well, that’s what he’s telling you with his behavior,” she said smartly. This is the kind of smug insight I was paying $100 an hour for. When I got home, Brendan was lying on his back on the bed. I could see his shirt and tie wadded up on the floor, where he had started throwing them every day when he got home from work. His heels were resting lightly on the wall. A contractor had just spent two days repairing the drywall and painting over the damaged spots. The paint was too thin, I realized. Now that it had dried, I could still see where Brendan had drawn a big red apple and the words, “Bite me.” On closer inspection, though, it became obvious that he had just made the drawing again on top of the fresh paint. The same apple, the same words. “I think we need to break up,” I said. “I think we need to break up,” he repeated, high-pitched, imitating my voice. “Stop it,” I told him sternly. The therapist had said that I needed to be more forceful. He made a face. “Stop it,” he whined. We were supposed to be at a Christmas party in two hours. I pointed at the clock. “Get dressed,” I said. “Make me,” he said. I parked at the bottom of the hill. It was dark, spooky, out here where all the trees pointed their long, bony fingers in our direction. Brendan was slumped down in his seat. He’d spent the entire drive flipping the car radio from one station to another. I could feel a dull headache coming on. On both sides of the long driveway, all the way up to the house, our hosts had placed small paper bags, each filled with sand and a lit candle. We walked in between the luminarias. Gravel crunched under our boots. Every time I looked up at the top of the hill, I could see the house, glowing through the trees like a symbol of all that is fine and beautiful in the world. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Brendan fumble with something. I sighed. I was so exasperated by this point. “What’s in your mouth?” I asked. He didn’t answer, though—just went on chewing. I stopped walking and unbuttoned my coat. “Hey, look, dummy,” I said. “I can do it too.” I picked up a bit of gravel and put it in my mouth. It tasted dirty and gritty and surprisingly satisfying. Brendan shifted a stone into his cheek. “Spit that out,” he said. I smirked. “You look like a chipmunk.” “You do.” “No, you do.” He put his arm around me. As we walked up the front steps, we could hear music and laughter. “Ring the doorbell,” I said. “No, you ring it.” We had reached an impasse. When I thought about it, I was also tired of mopping the kitchen floor and paying bills. Inside the house, people were growing old and dying, but as long as we stood on the porch, on the periphery, we could stay exactly as we were. Brendan didn’t look at me. “Let’s go back down the hill and start again,” he said. “We can come right back.” Who knew what would happen next? So I agreed. We spat out our rocks, seeing who could spit further. They made little holes in the snow and disappeared. It might have been the first time I’d seen him smile in weeks. Then he took my hand, and for at least a few minutes, we were just two children, running through the forest.