Held Back

I have no idea why Kim fell in love with me. Maybe it was what she called karma. She had gone to Warren Woods High School, and I had gone to Warren Fitzgerald. We were the only two kids from the city of Warren — a suburb full of factories on the edge of Detroit — in the whole college of twelve hundred. If kids from Warren went anywhere, it was to community college or Wayne State. In the rare case of going away, they went to Michigan State. Nobody in Warren had even heard of Alba, but both Kim and I had found it. Both of us needed that middle-of-nowhere in order to find ourselves. I wanted to stop drinking and dry out (that part didn’t work out so well), and I didn’t want to follow the boys into the factory, so a small college hours away seemed like the perfect place to sober up and hide out. I think Kim needed to go to a place where they didn’t think she was too dreamy. Where they didn’t expect her to play basketball. Where they didn’t expect her to have the baby if she got pregnant. Where it was okay to hug trees (even if they laughed at you).

I would have hugged trees for her, that’s what I’m trying to say. Because she wasn’t crazy or lonely. Open, that’s the word. She had these long arms, and when she spread them to take me in, I felt like the world had granted me some special privilege.

We had three months. Could it have been real, lasting love, given enough time? Time, time — that was the rhyme that killed her.

“Psst. There’s the tree guy,” I whispered. We watched in silence as he moved through the woods hugging trees about fifty yards away. Not every tree. He had some kind of system. I could never get far enough into the head of somebody like that to figure out what that system might be.

I have no idea why Kim fell in love with me. Maybe it was what she called karma…. We were the only two kids from the city of Warren — a suburb full of factories on the edge of Detroit…

“He must be lonely,” Slim said. She snuggled down, putting her ear next to the ground as if maybe she could hear his soul sliding through the dying grass. Mudboy ran up to Tree Hug and nosed him in the crotch, but he just bent down and petted the dog — said some words and scratched his ear. Mudboy followed him for a distance, then returned to our little campsite.

I liked calling her Slim because of the liquid sounds that mimicked her flow through life. She didn’t have a hard K in her body.

“Maybe you’re right,” I said. “That bark must be rough.” I put my ear to her back.

“As rough as your beard,” she laughed. Mudboy curled up on top of our legs at the bottom of the bag and fell asleep. We breathed together in silence. I closed my eyes and held my ear against her—one cold ear, and one warm. I whispered, “Are you still awake?”

“Mmm-hmm,” she sniffled. Her nose was running. I handed her my handkerchief.

“You always have a handkerchief, L.C,” she said.

“I had bad allergies when I was a kid,” I said. “The kids used to do imitations of me blowing my nose. It was hilarious….” I’d let her call me L.C. because of the sweet rise in her voice on the C. It was tenderly wearing down the gruff L.C. I’d been hearing my whole life.

“At least you weren’t held back,” she said. “I was already the tallest kid in class, then they held me back a year. I was Gigantor Girl.”

“Nah, you’re my sweet, sweet, Slim,” I said. “And I love you, by the way.”

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