Once Strawberry Season Comes
In a three-star hotel ten miles from the Mall of America, Nathan and I sit on opposite sides of the bed with our backs to each other. I’m wearing lingerie. On the wall in front of me is a pair of square paintings, each with a pale yellow background and a bundle of purple watercolor carnations. I haven’t seen anything less interesting since Katie, our six-year-old daughter, held a hermit crab to the bridge of my nose and said, “Mommy, watch him come out!” only to learn the shell was empty a minute later. Yet I stare at the flowers willingly after my husband tells me to please change. He can’t do it. He begins to cry.
In college, people joked that Nathan and I might as well dress up as a bird and a bee for Halloween, considering the amount of time we spent together. Looking back, I don’t know how we did it, how we managed a relationship without letting our grades circle the drain. He was a business major, training to become an insurance claims adjuster, while I studied poetry, or, as my father put it, sentenced myself to a lifetime of poverty. Nathan didn’t care. He told me that doing what I loved was brave, that it showed I really cared about the world. He was wrong of course. At that point, I only recycled when a blue bin was within arm’s reach and didn’t know the first thing about global warming—apart from the fact that it was an issue no one had a solution for. Still, I didn’t correct him. I wanted him to believe there was more to me than oversized denim jackets and Ritz crackers in Ziploc bags, so if he thought I made the world a better place by annotating Rita Dove in my free time, then so be it.
College Nathan was different from adult Nathan. College Nathan was handsome—the kind of handsome you spot in the muscle milk section of Target, the kind of handsome that convinces you your fridge is lonesome without a six-pack of chocolate muscle milk when you’ve never tasted a drop of chocolate muscle milk in your life, didn’t realize until thirty seconds before that chocolate muscle milk existed, let alone that Target sold it.
When I sat across from him in Death in Perspective, a class my mother made me take because A) she paid for my tuition and B) “everyone should know how to write a will,” I swore to myself that I would never talk to him, never embarrass myself by saying something inherently irrelevant in his presence, and I kept that promise until the fifth week of class, when we took a field trip to the local cemetery.
“Do you think Margaret went by Marge or Betty?” Nathan asked. I walked over and read the headstone he stood in front of: Margaret B. Conner, beloved wife and mother, 1942-2013. “Where’d you get Betty from?” I said.
He rested his arm on my shoulder and pointed at Margaret’s grave. “Her middle name starts with a B, so I figured it has to be Betty. It’s the only acceptable B name.” A few seconds passed before he recognized his mistake. “Well that and Bonnie. Bonnie is your name, right?” I nodded and asked him to remind me of his.
“Nathan, after Nathan Sewell, a hockey player from the nineties,” he waved his arm as if brushing something away, “Don’t worry no one knows who he is.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Nathan after Nathan Sewell, the forgotten hockey player.” He smiled and joined me in a handshake. “You too, only-acceptable-B-name Bonnie.”
The television flips through slides of hotel amenities—the indoor pool, the fitness center, free wifi, breakfast in the lobby at six. My phone sits beside it on the dresser. I’m tempted to stand up and check it, to see if my mom has posted any new photos of Katie on Facebook, but Nathan paces the floor. He walks from the bathroom door to the blue sofa chair and back, saying words like “tired” and “monotonous,” though I’m not sure what for. I figure it’s too late to start listening now, so, instead, I examine the paintings on the wall and wonder if I watered the kitchen daffodils before I left. When Nathan’s rant hits the time it takes for four slides to fade in and out on the television, the lace of my lingerie begins to prickle against my skin. I itch what Katie calls my “side pillows,” the layers of fat on each side of my stomach, but that only irritates the skin more. If it would have been rude to grab my phone before, it’s plain wrong to change my clothes now, so I place my hands over my hips and lay back in bed, wishing it was my bed, the one at home decorated with blue and yellow hummingbirds, the one that doesn’t feel as stiff as cardboard, the one that is technically our bed, except I’m the only one who sleeps in it.
Nathan lives in and out of hotels around the country, fixing roofs after tornadoes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. With Hurricane Helene, the tsunami off the coast of California, and a handful of tornadoes in Oklahoma, he hasn’t had time to come home this year. Still, every day on the way to school, Katie asks me when he’ll be able to play Mario Kart with her again, and every day I respond, “I don’t know, hon. Daddy’s chasing a storm right now, but he’ll be back before you know it.” I’ve said it so much now, I’ve almost started to believe it. “Are you even listening to me?”
I sit up. Nathan’s in front of the bathroom, leaning forward with his arms out. “Of course I’m listening, but that doesn’t change the fact that I still don’t understand what happened, why you don’t like me anymore.”
“For heaven’s sake, Bonnie, I do like you. I just don’t want to sleep with you. Those are two different things and you know it.”
I shake my head and laugh under my breath. “Then what is it? Me? My muffin top? The way my glasses slide from the bridge to the tip of my nose? Or maybe it’s my thighs, the way they jiggle whenever I move. Tell me, Nathan. Tell me what’s so wrong that you can’t even be with your own wife.”
“I already told you, I don’t know what it is,” he slumps back down on his side of the bed, “I don’t know anything right now.”
I clench my jaw and look back at the paintings. The air conditioner cuts on, sending a dense wave of cool air through the room. On the balcony a small bird pecks at cracker crumbs from the night before.
In my sophomore year of college, Nathan and I had our first kiss. I’d gone to lunch with hima few times, but was dating a boy named Jacob, who sometimes sat in my poetry course. One day, while Jacob was buying us M&Ms at a gas station, Nathan pulled up to the pump next to ours. He knocked on the passenger window of Jacob’s Honda Civic, so I rolled it down. “Do you have a ten? I forgot my wallet in the dorm.”
I handed him a twenty from the console and said I’d pay Jacob back later, to which he thanked me and turned to walk back to his pump, then changed his mind. In the corner of my eye, Jacob stood at the counter, pulling a card from his alligator clip wallet.
“What is it?” I asked. Nathan looked at his feet and shook his head. “What?” I said again. He leaned into the passenger window and kissed me, softly and quickly, like it was something we did all the time. His hand lingered on my cheek a second before Jacob walked out of the gas station. At the sight of him, Nathan pulled away and returned to his pump without so much as a second glance. The next day, he found me after class and said he didn’t regret anything, said he wanted to do this and would scream it across campus, said I was the only one, the only one for the long haul.
My phone rings from the top of the dresser. When I pick up, I hear my daughter’s voice. “Mommy, guess what?!”
Nathan stands up and mouths Katie? so I nod and put her on speaker.
“I drew a pink butterfly at school today and Ms. Jasmine said it was the prettiest butterfly she’s seen in the whole wide world.”
“Honey, that’s so great.”
“I’m proud of you, Katie girl.”
“Is that you, Daddy? When can we play Mario Kart again?”
Nathan smiles. “Soon enough, girly, soon enough.”
We speak a while longer, remind her a few times more of how much we miss her, then say our goodbyes and hang up. When I set my phone back on the counter, I’m surprised by the room’s silence. Nathan must be too because he looks at the indentation on his side of the bed, where he sat just a few minutes ago, then goes to the restroom. At the click of the lock, I twirl in place. Something about talking to Katie made me feel like we can do this, like we can still be parents, like, somehow, we can love each other again.
I see us now: We’re at the farm down the road picking strawberries. Katie walks in front of us, stopping at each runner, tossing red and greenish white berries into her plastic bucket. I tell her we can make jam later and she squeals, which makes Nathan squeeze my hand twice, our signal for I love you. The sun begins to fall over the horizon, burning a deep coral into the clouds, and we drive home together, the three of us, for the first of many times.
Nathan walks out of the restroom. I want to tell him that we’ll be picking strawberries in no time, that no matter what we do or say in this hotel room, we can still be a family. I plop down at the foot of the bed, about to pat the space next to me when he sits there.
“Bonnie,” he says, resting his hand on my knee. His touch makes me aware of the lingerie on my body and, again, I’m overwhelmed with a desire to change. “Bonnie, everything is the same.”
He rolls a yellow thread in between his fingers. Up close, he no longer looks like the man I kissed goodbye at the Atlanta airport, the man who promised the storms would die down, promised he’d only be gone for a month or two. I try to convince myself it’s only the aftermath of his tears, the red and pink splotches on his cheeks, but then I notice the deep wrinkles in his temples, the dark bags under his eyes, the silver patches of stubble across his jawline. I brush the thought away and rest my head on his shoulder.
“Isn’t it great? I didn’t think it would work out because we haven’t seen each other in so long but everything really is the same, which means life can finally go back to the way it was before you left. I even thought we could try out that strawberry patch down the road from Katie’s daycare to celebrate,” his shoulder tenses, “I mean, when you get back of course. You are coming back, right?”
The thread whips back and forth, hitting the tip of his thumb with each coil. “Everything can’t go back to the way it was because everything is the same. I go to work and I hate it. I eat powdered eggs and I hate it. I stop at red light after red light and and, Bonnie, I hate it. Every day, every laugh, every sigh is expected. I can’t do it anymore. God, I can’t do it.” I lift my head and pretend not to notice my question went unanswered. “Hon, I don’t know what to tell you,” I itch my right side, “That’s life?”
He falls back onto the bed. “Life is cotton candy at state festivals and roller skate stickers on Happy Meal toys and drive-in movie theaters so far from home that, by the time you have to drive back, it’s 2 AM and you haven’t felt so exhausted since graduate school, but you’ve got half a bottle of Coke Zero in the cup holder and the love of your life in the passenger seat, so you know it’s all worth it. That’s life. This—whatever this is—” he waves his hand, “is not life.”
Down the hall, a woman laughs. I lie down next to Nathan and can’t help but wish I didn’t feel the need to be close to him, the need to trace my finger over the hair on his forearm, to inch toward him until our shoulders are touching. I can’t help but wish I didn’t need him as much as he didn’t need me. Still, I find his hand at the base of his stomach and slide my fingers between his, rubbing my thumb across the soft part of his palm. We stay like this for three slides on the television, after which Nathan turns on his side, resting his neck in the crook of his hand.
“Do you remember the night before your 26th birthday? You said there was no reason to celebrate one year closer to death, so we celebrated your birthday eve instead. The Bi-LO by 7-Eleven was out of peanut butter cookie dough and strawberry cake mix—unsurprisingly, considering that Bi-LO closed its doors a few months later—so we filled our buggy with a quarter-pound bag of Sour Patch Kids, a few peaches, some latte-flavored Oreos, a jug of apple
juice, a package of maple bacon, a can of whipped cream for you, a tub of Cool Whip for me. When we got home, I set it all out on the quilt blanket we used for a table while you showered and put on those kitten pajama pants you used to wear every night. Then we stuffed ourselves
with calories and talked about things we always knew were real but never thought possible, things like Katie and good-paying jobs and a wooden dining room table, somewhere we could set up Thanksgiving dinner and throw junk mail after a long day. We were so young then, and didn’t know anything about life, how it becomes a routine you’ll pray every night to escape,” he sighs, “I don’t think we can ever get back to that.”
I smile, partly because I forgot about that night, how times used to be easy and manageable, simple and exciting, partly because I can’t remember the last time we laid in bed together, side by side, and talked about anything. I scoot closer to Nathan’s body, nestle my head in his chest, wrap my arms around his back—careful to make sure he can’t see my tears. “You’re not coming home, are you?”
He pulls me closer and kisses the top of my head. My heart beats hard against my chest out of fear that any other movement will prompt him to get up from bed, pack his suitcase, return to another life. After a handful of slides pass on the television, the air conditioning cuts off, emptying the room of a quiet rumble I didn’t notice until it was gone.
Camryn Hambrick is a senior creative writer at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, South Carolina. She has received a Scholastic Gold Medal for Humor, a Scholastic American Voices Medal, and has work published in The Interlochen Review. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family and her new dog, Bob Ross.