The Longest Ride. Занятие 28

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The late afternoon sun begins to sink below the horizon, and I should be concerned about the coming of night. But one thought dominates my consciousness.


Water, in any form. Ice. Lakes. Rivers. Waterfalls. Flowing from the faucet. Anything to alleviate the clot that has formed in my throat. Not a lump, but a clot that found its way there from somewhere else, something that doesn’t belong there. It seems to grow with every breath.


I recognize that I have been dreaming. Not about the car wreck. This, the car wreck, is real and I know this. This is the only real thing. I close my eyes and concentrate, forcing myself to remember the details. But in my parched haze, it’s hard to piece together what happened. I’d wanted to avoid the interstate— people drove too fast—and I’d highlighted the route heavy with single-lane highways on a map I’d found in the kitchen drawer. I remember pulling off the highway to get gas and then being momentarily unsure which direction to go. I vaguely recall passing a town called Clemmons. Later, once I realized I’d gotten turned around, I followed a dirt road, finally ending up on another highway called 421. I saw signs for a town called Yadkinville. The weather started to worsen, and by then I was too afraid to stop. Nothing looked familiar, but I kept on following the twists and turns of the highway until I found myself on yet another highway altogether, one that was leading directly into the mountains. I didn’t know the number and by then it didn’t matter because the snow was really coming down. And it was dark, so dark that I did not see the curve. I went through the guardrail and heard the twisting of metal before the car surged down the embankment.


And now: I am alone and no one has found me. I have been dreaming about my wife for almost a day as I lay trapped in the car. Ruth is gone. She died in our bedroom a long time ago and she is not in the seat beside me. I miss her. I have missed her for nine years and spent much of that time wishing that I had been the one to die first. She would have been better at living alone, she would have been able to move on. She was always stronger and smarter and better at everything, and I think again that of the two of us, I made the better choice so long ago. I still don’t know why she chose me. While she was exceptional, I was average, a man whose major accomplishment in life was to love her without reservation, and that will never change. But I am tired and thirsty, and I can feel my strength draining away. It’s time to stop fighting. It’s time to join her, and I close my eyes, thinking that if I go to sleep, I will be with her forever—


“You are not dying,” Ruth suddenly interrupts my thoughts. Her voice is urgent and tense. “Ira. It is not your time yet. You wanted to go to Black Mountain, remember? There is still something you must do.”


“I remember,” I say, but even whispering the words is a challenge. My tongue feels too big for my mouth, and the blockage in my throat has grown larger. It is hard to draw a breath. I need water, moisture, anything to help me swallow, and I need to swallow now. It’s almost impossible to breathe. I try to draw a breath, but not enough air comes in and my heart suddenly hammers in my chest.


Dizziness begins to distort the sights and sounds around me. I am going, I think. My eyes are closed and I’m ready—


“Ira!” Ruth shouts, leaning toward me. She grabs my arm.


“Ira! I am talking to you! Come back to me!” she demands.


Even from a distance, I hear her fear, though she is trying to hide it from me. I vaguely feel the shaking of my arm, but it stays frozen in place, another sign that this isn’t real.


“Water,” I croak.


“We will get water,” she says. “For now, you have to breathe, and to do that you must swallow. There is blood clotting in your throat from the accident. It is blocking your airway. It is choking you.”


Her voice sounds thin and distant, and I do not answer. I feel drunk, passing-out drunk. My mind is swimming and my head is on the steering wheel and all I want to do is sleep. To fade away—


Ruth shakes my arm again. “You must not think that you are trapped in this car!” she shouts.


“But I am,” I mumble. Even in my fogginess, I know my arm hasn’t moved at all and that her words are just another trick of my imagination.


“You are at the beach!” Her breath is in my ear, suddenly seductive, a new tack. Her face is so close, I imagine I can feel the brush of her long lashes, the heat of her breath. “It is 1946. Can you remember this? It is the morning after we first made love,” she says. “If you swallow, you will be there again. You will be at the beach with me. Do you remember when you came out of your room? I poured you a glass of orange juice and I handed it to you. I am handing it to you now…”


“You’re not here.”


“I am here and I am handing you the glass!” she insists. When I open my eyes, I see her holding it. “You need to drink right now.”


She moves the glass toward me and tilts it toward my lips. “Swallow!” she commands. “It does not matter if you spill some in the car!”


It’s crazy, but it’s the last comment—about spilling in the car —that gets to me most. More than anything, it reminds me of Ruth and the demanding tone she would use whenever she needed me to do something important. I try to swallow, feeling nothing but sandpaper at first and then… something else, something that stops my breathing altogether.


And for an instant, I feel nothing but panic.


The instinct to survive is powerful, and I can no more control what happens next than I can control my own heartbeat. At that moment, I swallow automatically, and after that I keep swallowing, the tender soreness giving way to a coppery, acidic taste, and I keep swallowing even after the taste finally passes to my stomach.


Throughout all this, my head remains pressed against the steering wheel, and I continue to pant like an overheated dog until finally my breathing returns to normal. And as my breath returns, so too do the memories.


Ruth and I had breakfast with her parents and then spent the rest of the morning at the beach while her parents read on the porch. Patches of clouds had begun to form on the horizon and the wind had picked up since the day before. As the afternoon wound down, Ruth’s parents strolled down to see whether we would like to join them on an expedition to Kitty Hawk, where Orville and Wilbur Wright made history by flying the first airplane. I had been there when I was young, and though I was willing to go again, Ruth shook her head. She’d rather relax on her last day, she told them.


An hour later, they were gone. By then the sky had turned gray, and Ruth and I meandered back to the house. In the kitchen, I wrapped my arms around her as we stood gazing out the window. Then, without a word, I took her hand and led her to my room.


Though my vision is hazy, I can make out Ruth sitting beside me again. Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but I could swear she’s wearing the robe she’d worn the night we first made love.


“Thank you,” I say. “For helping me catch my breath.”


“You knew what you had to do,” she says. “I am just here to remind you.”


“I couldn’t have done it without you.”


“You would have,” she says with certainty. Then, toying with the neckline of her robe, she says almost seductively: “You were very forward with me that day at the beach. Before we were married. When my parents went to Kitty Hawk.”


“Yes,” I admit. “I knew we had hours to ourselves.”


“Well… it was a surprise.”


“It shouldn’t have been,” I say. “We were alone and you were beautiful.”


She tugs at the robe. “I should have taken it as a warning.” “Warning?”


“Of things to come,” she says. “Until that weekend, I was not sure you were… passionate. But after that weekend, I sometimes found myself wishing for the old Ira. The shy one, the one who always showed restraint. Especially when I wanted to sleep in.”


“Was I that bad?”


“No,” she says, tilting her head back to gaze at me through heavy-lidded eyes. “Quite the contrary.”


We spent the afternoon tangled in the sheets, making love with even greater passion than the night before. The room was warm, and our bodies glistened with sweat, her hair wet near the roots. Afterward, as Ruth showered, the rain began, and I sat in the kitchen, listening as it pounded against the tin roof, as content as I had ever been.


Her parents returned soon after that, drenched by the downpour. By then, Ruth and I were busy in the kitchen, preparing dinner. Over a simple meal of spaghetti with meat sauce, the four of us sat around the table as her father talked about their day, the conversation somehow segueing as it often did into a discussion about art. He spoke of Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, and Futurism—words I’d never heard before—and I was struck not only by the subtle distinctions that he drew, but by the hunger with which Ruth devoured every word. In truth, most of it was beyond me, the knowledge slipping through my grasp, but neither Ruth nor her father seemed to notice.


After dinner, once the rain had passed and evening was descending, Ruth and I went out for a walk on the beach. The air was sticky and the sand packed under our feet as I gently traced my thumb along the back of her hand. I glanced toward the water. Terns were darting in and out of the waves, and just past the breakers, a school of porpoises swam by in leaping formation. Ruth and I watched them until they were obscured in the mist. Only then did I turn to face her.


“Your parents will be moving in August,” I finally said.


She squeezed my hand. “They are going to look for a house in Durham next week.”


“And you start teaching in September?”


“Unless I go with them,” she said. “Then I will have to find a job there.”


Over her shoulder, the lights in the house went on.


“Then I guess we don’t have much choice,” I said to her. I kicked at the packed sand briefly, drawing up the courage I needed before meeting her eyes. “We have to get married in August.”


At this memory, I smile, but Ruth’s voice cuts through my reverie, her disappointment evident.


“You could have been more romantic,” she tells me, sulking.


For a moment, I’m confused. “You mean… with my proposal?”


“What else would I be talking about?” She throws up her hands. “You could have dropped to one knee, or said something about your undying love. You could have formally asked for my hand in marriage.”


“I already did those things,” I said. “The first time I proposed.”


“But then you ended it. You should have started all over. I want to recall the kind of proposal one reads about in storybooks.”


“Would you like me to do that now?”


“It is too late,” she says, dismissing the notion. “You missed your chance.”


But she says this with such flirtatious overtones that I can hardly wait to return to the past.


We signed the ketubah soon after we got home from the beach, and I married Ruth in August 1946. The ceremony was held under the chuppah, as is typical in Jewish weddings, but there weren’t many people in attendance. The guests were mostly friends of my mother’s that we knew from the synagogue, but that was the way both Ruth and I wanted it. She was far too practical for a more extravagant wedding, and though the shop was doing well—which meant I was doing well—both of us wanted to save as much as we could for a down payment on the home we wanted to buy in the future. When I broke that glass beneath my foot and watched our mothers clap and cheer, I knew that marrying Ruth was the most life-changing thing I’d ever done.


For the honeymoon, we headed west. Ruth had never visited that part of the state before, and we chose to stay at the Grove Park Inn resort in Asheville. It was—and still is—one of the most storied resorts in the South, and our room overlooked the Blue Ridge Mountains. The resort also boasted hiking trails and tennis courts, along with a pool that had appeared in countless magazines.


Ruth, however, showed little interest in any of those things. Instead, soon after we arrived, she insisted on heading into town. Madly in love, I didn’t care what we did as long as we were together. Like her, I had never been to this part of the state, but I knew that Asheville had always been a prominent watering hole for the wealthy during the summer months. The air was fresh and the temperatures cool, which is why during the Gilded Age, George Vanderbilt had commissioned the Biltmore Estate, which at the time was the largest private home in the world. Other moneyed Americans followed his lead, and Asheville eventually came to be known as an artistic and culinary destination throughout the South. Restaurants hired chefs from Europe, and art galleries lined the town’s main street.

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Диана Семёнычева

Диана Семёнычева