Hands Across the Years

Terry Barr's essays have been published in storySouth, Under the Sun, EMRYS Journal, The New Southern Fugitives, The Coachella Review, The Bitter Southerner, and Call Me [Brackets]. He has thrice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in Nonfiction, and lives with his family in Greenville, SC.

My wife and I celebrated our 36th anniversary last week, our very first under a semi-self-imposed quarantine. We rarely leave our house, and when we do go to a farmer’s market or to Costco, we wear masks and sanitize the hell out of our hands.

Last year for our anniversary, I reserved us a table on the balcony of one of our favorite restaurants in town: Jianna. I set the time for later in the evening, so we could watch the sun descending over the Reedy River, and more importantly, so that the swelter of mid-June wouldn’t cause any sort of internal meltdown (we are well-past our prime years).

Our daughters surprised us with a bottle of champagne, waiting at our table. They live out of town and wanted to remind us that our love engendered theirs, as if we’d ever forget.

So we toasted them, ourselves, and yes, got a bit tipsy and toasty from all that champagne in a bottle that we absolutely finished ourselves. I no longer remember what we ate, but I believe I set aside my gluten allergies and ordered some fresh and very homemade pasta, along with a half-dozen fresh east coast oysters.

So here’s to last year.

This year, our daughters bought us supper from another good eatery, a farm-to-table bistro near us. I had to go pick up the meal, though given the staff’s welcomed use of masks and gloves, we could have dined there, I think, without issue. Other patrons mainly did not wear protection, and one man, I’m pretty sure, clucked like a chicken at me when I emerged from my car, mask on.

It’s a strange world when someone wants to make you feel less of a man, or human, for your preference NOT TO CATCH COVID-19.

I chose to keep walking because nothing says Happy Anniversary like a street-fight between two white men in their 60’s.

Safely back in the comfort and aesthetic charm of our screened-in back porch, we enjoyed our meal, alone. No champagne and very little “to-do.”

I kept trying not to feel anti-climactic, because in these days, it is something to celebrate being safe, healthy, and together.

Of course, the sadder question is how many couples today, even without a deadly virus, can say that they are still happy together after all these years?

Maybe you knew there’d be a rub coming. It’s not a harsh one—just a coarse run against anxiety’s grain.

Last Saturday night, we again ordered food from our farm-to-table bistro, this time to celebrate my sister-in-law’s birthday. I won’t mention her age, but she is my wife’s older sister. The food was delicious, and we had meant to take it to my sister-in-law’s house, but my wife, who’s been undergoing a new exercise regime instigated by our older daughter, suffered a cringing back spasm earlier that afternoon. One muscle relaxer and many heating pad minutes later, we both decided that she was in no position—upright or lying down—to get in and out of a car.

Muscle relaxers take a lot of edge off, and there were moments in the coming hours where I sorely wished I had downed one, too.

So after a pleasant evening on the porch, we retired for a night of much-needed rest.

My wife had trouble finding a comfortable, reclined position, and when she finally did, she began immediately to snore.

LOUDLY. 

Kind of like a motor boat revving up.

So I chose to sleep on our comfy, sectional sofa. Why disturb her, and why struggle?

Our beloved dog, Max, sleeps in our bedroom in a crate of his own, complete with padded bed and blanket. He stays in our bed until I finish reading, usually, and then hops down and enters his sanctum, willingly.

But somewhere in this anxious night, he awoke, restless. I didn’t hear him until my wife released him from the crate. And sadly, though I heard him beginning to make those upset stomach doggy sounds, I didn’t get to him in time to prevent what I can only call (in my late, beloved mother’s immortal words).

“An explosion from both ends.”

It had been years, decades, since I had had to clean up mess of this proportion—since those days when little girls would belie their gentle, modest natures with projectile vomiting. And not to martyr myself completely, but there was no way my wife could get back out of bed and bend to help clean this latest “condition.”

Poor Max was slinking around, understanding that he had contributed something to the atmosphere. Isn’t it strange, and in some ways comforting, to know that your dog tries his best to keep you from suffering? His explosion was in the corner of our kitchen nearest to the basement steps. The door was closed because in the past, other creatures have entered from the cat door below and meandered into our bedroom: stray cats and even a raccoon or two.

So Max had no egress.

And I barely had enough paper towels.

But all got cleaned and the next morning, while Max still hesitated to re-enter the scene of his greatest defeat, all seemed well.

Except for Max’s stomach, which I didn’t understand was still not in its best shape until after I had fed him his usual kibble. Not that he had another indoor accident, but rather, he was unsettled out of doors.

I’m not talking anything major, and I did consult Pet MD. Likely, as dogs do, he had eaten something that went against his grain. Still, I felt unconsoled because I had not learned early enough that he should go off his regular food and begin a chicken and rice diet.

My poor wife. Hurting though she was, she also had to endure my face: anxious, worried, almost forlorn. As a therapist, she talks wisely to me about calming my anxious mind, and I do listen, but after losing numerous pets and suffering significant, and sometimes sudden, human losses over the past three years, my “startle reflex” has found a deep and expansive groove.

After another restless night—uncrated Max kept running outside, though in the dark, I couldn’t tell if he was sick or merely responding to all the night sounds that energize his protective instincts—I was running on no sleep but with an abundance of monkey brain fear.

I called our vet, and she said to allow the chicken and rice to help soothe his stomach for the day. That made sense to me—logical, but not emotional sense. Max seemed fine otherwise. his energy, his drinking water: you’d never know anything was wrong unless you’d seen and smelled with your own senses, what I, unfortunately, had

And now, here’s the part where 36 years mean more than words.

To calm me the night before, the three of us took a casual drive around the older residential neighborhood near ours. We reminisced over places we used to walk when the kids were little; we managed our house envy when we saw the old craftsman places we’d so love to own. The evening was semi-cloudy and cool enough to drive with the windows open. Max hung his head out, sniffing and barking at every leashed dog he saw.

My wife and I have always taken drives when we wanted to talk or get out of ourselves, and usually when we do, we hold hands.

So, though Max still had some stomach distress, I felt a bit calmer upon returning home. We watched the latest episode of “Grantchester,” our Sunday night routine, and in one scene, the vicar and his new love interest tentatively allow their fingers to touch and then intertwine while they watch a movie in a beautiful old Gloucestershire theater.

Just the way our love began in the student center theater at the University of Tennessee, 36 years ago.

I remember her hand first grazing and then holding my arm, the first sign of what I had hoped would be a new and forever love.

So I had hope, because I had the associations that trigger my good and long memory.

Like I said, overnight was hard, and the next morning only marginally better. But after calling the vet, after walking Max and allowing his chicken and rice to help strengthen his stomach digestion, my wife and I settled in the late morning on our deck, to read and find stillness and calm.

And as I read, trying to keep my fears in check, I felt her hand finding that same place on my arm and holding it.

Holding me.

As love so often does, has, over these almost four decades.

A good night, a better morning. Max is almost wholly mended, as my wife predicted he would be all along. My logic knew it, too, though my emotions lagged far behind.

Still, 36 years ago, I knew before she did what our future could be. Nothing logical about it—just an emotional truth that has stood me, us, in good stead for all these years.

With plenty more to go, whether the commemoration is elegant or mundane, the nights tranquil or stormy.

Our hands together.

Now that you're here

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