Chapter 4: The Unexamined Life
Nate pulled his car into the space between the house and the garage to keep it out of the bright morning sun. Three days on the road had left the usually spotless vehicle looking and feeling worn. He also didn’t really have anything better to do. Washing the car felt like something. He got out and started filling a bucket with water from the hose and some soap he’d found in the garage.
Tires crunched on gravel. Nate put the hose down and stuck his head around the edge of the garage. A big, black Chevrolet 1500 Extended Cab pickup pulled up and the driver killed the engine. The door opened and Emma slipped lightly out of the massive truck.
Nate stepped out into the driveway, “How do you get in and out of that thing?” he asked.
“I have a step ladder I use most of the time,” she responded, smiling. She was dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, with her hair pulled back into a pony tail and covered by a Kansas City Royals hat. It was a much different look from the well dressed, professional school teacher he had met when he first arrived in Chauncey. Dwarfed by the huge black Chevy, she looked far more the country girl he would have expected to meet in a small Kansas town.
She closed the door and stepped around the front of the truck. “Drive around on old country roads long enough and you’ll be wanting to trade your luxury and leather in for one of these,” she gestured back at the truck. “And you won’t have much fun the first time you get snowed in.”
“You’ve never experienced a Chicago winter, I take it,” he responded.
“No,” she nodded, “I haven’t. But I know we don’t have snow plows or too many paved streets around here.”
“Good point,” he said.
“So, what’s the plan for this fine Saturday, other than washing that shiny car of yours?”
“Well,” he said, taking off his White Sox hat and wiping his brow, “I hadn’t really given it any thought. Turns out this is only my third day in Kansas and I don’t know anything about the social calendar.”
She threw her head back and spun around. “Come on, Nate,” she said, her eyes locking with his, “You have that freedom you’ve always wanted now. No one is telling you what to do anymore, and you don’t have any of those limitations you were telling me about the other day. And now you’re telling me you don’t know what you want to do with it?”
“Hey, back off for a second there,” Nate said, putting his hands up. “I haven’t really given any thought to this yet.”
“What did you do all day yesterday?”
“I’ve spent the last couple years of my life with six-day work weeks and then I spent three days on the road. Cut me some slack. Besides, you’re the only person I know here. It’s not like I can just make a call and have something to do.”
“I guess,” she shrugged, “Sorry I didn’t talk to you yesterday. I was thinking about it, but ended up having way too much to do.”
“It’s okay. My inner demons had plenty going on to keep me occupied. That’s good, too. The internet access out here is shit.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Internet? What’s that? Is it one o’ them big city thingies?”
“It’s, um,” Nate paused and rubbed his chin, “It’s like a TV, but you type on it and you can look stuff up or watch videos and stuff.”
“Why would anyone want something like that?”
“For porn, mostly. And cat videos.”
“Well that just sounds like a huge waste of time.”
Nate nodded. “Yup, that’s pretty much what it’s there for.”
“You’re pretty much stuck here,” she shrugged. “We can get DSL in town but you might be stuck with dial up. Aunt Ruth never had much use for technology and I don’t think anyone felt the need upgrade the infrastructure when I lived here. You’re kind of in the middle of nowhere.”
“Well that’s just lovely.”
“Eh,” she held her hands up in a gesture of helplessness, “What’re ya gonna do?”
“Get my porn the old-fashioned way. I’ll steal Playboys from my dad’s dresser.”
She rolled her eyes. “Best of luck with all that, then.”
“I’m not entirely mad about that. I spend too much time on the internet, anyway.”
“So what do you want to do instead?”
Nate looked down at his shoes and thought for a few moments. Smiling, he looked back up at her, “Well,” he said, “I’ve always wanted one of those huge home theater systems, with big speakers and a giant TV.”
She stared at him for long moment. “You mean to tell me,” she finally asked, “That of all the things you could have, you want a stereo? And you want me to believe that you couldn’t have one back in Chicago?” She laughed, “Come on, Nate, I might seem like a dumb farm girl to you, but give me some credit here.”
“I’m not joking, Emma,” he responded, the smile leaving his face. “I lived in an apartment where my neighbors were an old couple and a cop who worked the third shift. You can’t have big, noisy stereos in those conditions. And Julia probably wouldn’t have let me get one after we got married and moved in to a new house, either.”
“Fine, then,” she crossed her arms over her chest and stopped laughing. “Tell you what. The only big electronics store around is back in Wichita. We’ll go there and you can buy the biggest speakers in town.”
“Guess I can hold off on the car wash for a bit,” Nate said, turning back towards the Acura, “We can be in town in about an hour.” He turned back to her, “But you’re going to have to lose that hat, if you’re going to ride in my car.”
Offering a quick, impish grin, she reached up and gripped the brim of the hat with three fingers and touched her upper lip with the tip of her tongue. “I thought you left Chicago behind,” she said, “And last I checked, the White Sox are from Chicago.”
“Well,” he said, “Some things are harder to leave behind than others.”
“I have a better idea,” she offered, “I won’t make you take your hat off if you don’t make me take mine off. I think you’re in Kansas now, Toto.”
“Sorry. Bad joke.” She shrugged. “So do we have a deal or not?”
“Alright.” Nate shook his head and returned to the hose. “I’ll take it, but I don’t have to like it.”
“I never said you did.”
There was no east-bound entrance to I-70 from Shackner Road. Emma directed him through several miles of back roads before they could get back onto the expressway. For several miles of I-70, silence dominated the car. Finally tiring of the quiet, Nate asked a question that had been weighing on his mind. “Do you really think that I’m running away from everything?”
She took a deep breath, “What do you think, Nate?” she asked. “I don’t know you very well. I don’t know you at all, in fact, but I know something about people. And I know that people don’t just give up their plans, their future, their entire life, even, just because they think it would be fun.”
“But do you really think that I’m scared?”
She leaned back against the head rest and closed her eyes. Seconds seemed to turn into hours, and finally the silence became oppressive. Just as he opened his mouth to ask the question again, her eyes popped open and she sat up straight. “Were there ever bullies in your school?” she asked.
“Yeah, of course there were.”
“Did they ever pick on you?”
“A few times, I guess,” he said. His stomach began tightening into a hard ball as he began to see where she was going.
“What did you do when a bully came around?”
“I…I pretty much tried to avoid him.”
“And why,” she asked, turning to face him, “Did you try to avoid bullies?”
“Because I was scared of them, I guess,” he said, shrugging, “But that’s not the same. I mean, they could beat me up. I was never much of a fighter.”
She chuckled, “That’s pretty weak, Nate, and you know it. But let’s try something different,” she changed her tone. “Was there ever some girl that you really liked, but you could never talk to?”
Nate laughed and shook his head. “Yeah, as a matter of fact, that happened,” pausing, he thought back to high school. “Back during sophomore year I knew this girl named Katie. I thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world.”
“So what happened?”
“Nothing,” he said, “Absolutely nothing. I could never seem to talk to her, I could never bring myself to tell her how I felt.”
“So,” she said, “You couldn’t talk to her…”
“Because I was scared,” he finished the thought, sighing, “I was scared she’d reject me, or tell me I wasn’t good enough or…I don’t know what I thought. And because I was scared I avoided even trying to get to know her.” For an instant he believed her, but just as quickly as he had agreed, his mind rebelled against the thought. “But it’s not like I ran away from home because of that. I mean, you can’t compare that to this.”
“Oh really?” she asked, “Seems to me you avoided bullies because you were scared of them, you avoided this girl because you were scared of what she’d do or say. So by logical extent, couldn’t we say that you saw what was coming up, getting tied down in marriage and a career and everything, and suddenly you got scared of what you saw?”
She cut him off and continued pressing the argument home. The thought came full circle quickly. “And wouldn’t you say that packing up and running off to Kansas sounds a lot like someone trying to avoid his problems?”
“Okay, fine,” Nate answered, “I’ll admit that it sounds like I’m trying to avoid everything back home, but I’m not doing this because I’m scared.”
She shook her head and sighed. “So why aren’t you in Illinois with your fiancee right now?” she asked.
“I told you,” he responded, feeling his cheeks flush with anger, “I realized that I wasn’t going where I wanted to go with my life. And she wasn’t my fiancee yet.”
Emma sighed. “Fine, your girlfriend who you were planning on proposing to at some point in the next week. However, you must not think I’m very smart.” She put her hand on his forearm. “Because only an idiot would believe that argument.”
“Or an idealist,” frustrated, he pulled his arm from under her hand and gripped the steering wheel with whitening knuckles.
“Now you’re just giving idealists a bad name. I don’t think you’re one, anyway. You’re just a little too aware of the world to ever pull off the old drop everything and chase your dreams shtick.”
“Why can’t I?”
“Because that’s life,” her voice rose, “And by most accounts yours had been going pretty well. You were about to get married, from what I can tell you had a high paying job, and even though you don’t seem to be very good at presenting an argument, you seem to be too intelligent to have concluded your life could have been better by running away from that.” She crossed her arms over her chest and studied the landscape.
For a moment he allowed her argument to fuel his anger. She had no right to tell him what was on his mind, no background to understand his actions. He toyed with the thought of turning around and taking her back, or simply stopping the car and leaving her by the side of the road. He dismissed that thought immediately. Alienating the only friend he seemed to have would probably be a bad idea. He looked over at her and shook his head. She did seem to be genuinely trying to help, after all. And he had brought it up, so there was no use in getting angry.
“So maybe I don’t know any way to deal with problems except by running scared,” he said, hesitantly. “Maybe that’s how I’ve dealt with everything in my life.”
She turned from the window to face him. “So you’re willing to admit you’re scared?” she asked.
He rubbed his neck with his right hand, analyzing her hypothesis. Several minutes passed and miles fell behind in silence. There was no real reason for him to have just up and left. At least, it made sense when he thought of the situations with his reasons. But when he viewed his actions from her perspective and saw them as the actions of a scared man running away what he had done made perfect sense.
“Yeah, I guess you are right,” he finally said. “I guess I did leave because I was scared that my life wouldn’t be what I had hoped for. But you have to understand, I had a good career, I was about to have the life everyone told me I should be searching for, but I looked at it and decided it wasn’t worth it. What’s the point of living the good life if the entire sum of your existence is spent within the four walls of your office?”
“Well I’ll be,” she said, “You finally made an argument that I can live with. Maybe you can learn.”
“What does that mean?”
“You did something big and irrational,” she replied, choosing her words carefully, “But you obviously had reasons and they’ve obviously been building up. You made a conscious choice and you packed before you left. The course of action you chose came because you were scared of either the problems you knew you’d have to deal with or the fallout of dealing with those problems. Admitting you got scared and ran away just means that we can deal with the actual, underlying problem.”
“Oh. Should we really do this in the car, Dr. Freud?” he asked. “Shouldn’t I by lying down on a couch somewhere.”
“No, eets ohkay,” she said in a terrible accent that sounded a bit like an Australian version of Dracula, “Joost tell me vhen yhou started vanting to hahve sex vit your mother.”
“That is the worst German accent ever. You know that, right?”
“Freud was Austrian, you know.”
“Whatever. Is there a difference?”
“Damned if I know.”
They lapsed into a comfortable silence.
They spent just over three hours in the central Kansas City. Two hours studying televisions, speakers and audio components left them hungry, so with a back seat and trunk filled with boxes and a delivery slip for a massive wide screen TV that was just too big for the sedan the pair went in search of a late lunch.
They found a little burger joint and decided it looked decent.
Nate excused himself to use the washroom as soon as they were seated. He got back a couple of minutes later to find Emma laughing at their ashen-faced waiter.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“He thinks we’re married,” Emma told him, eyes twinkling.
“That’s a rather odd thing to think,” Nate responded, raising an eyebrow at the waiter. He looked young and relatively innocent.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” the waiter held up his hands defensively, “It’s just that you’re very…couple-y.” He looked down at his shoes. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Nate shook his head. “I think she’s only laughing because she’s too smart to do anything like that.” He patted the waiter on the shoulder. “No harm done.”
“So can I get you anything?” the waiter asked, blatantly attempting to change the subject.
“Water, for the moment,” Nate said.
“Iced tea,” Emma said.
The waiter beat a hasty retreat.
Emma watched him for a second then turned to Nate. “Now what was that all about?” she asked.
“What was what all about?” he asked.
“That ‘she’s too smart to do anything like that’ comment, that’s what,” she said.
“Really?” he raised an eyebrow, “You need me to explain that?”
“That’s,” she paused, “Never mind. Forget I said anything.”
Nate shrugged, then decided to change the subject. “Speaking of women who should be too smart to be around me, what do you think I should do, you know, about Julia?” he asked.
“I can’t tell you what to do,” she told him, “But I can say this. If you go back, be honest with her. If you don’t, at least call her, talk to her. Give her closure. You might find it helps you in the process, too.”
Nate began to respond, but was cut off by the waiter returning with their drinks.
“Do you know what you want?” he asked.
“We should probably actually read the menu,” Nate said.
“Good plan,” Emma agreed.
“How much do I owe you?” Emma asked as the waiter dropped off the check.
“Don’t worry. It’s on me.”
“Let me at least pay my part of it, Nate,” she insisted, “You did just spend several thousand dollars on a home theater.”
“So another few dollars on lunch won’t be noticed, will it?” he asked, putting his hands up. “Besides, I’m sure you had better things to do today than wander around in an electronics store.”
“Actually,” she said after a long pause, “I really hadn’t planned anything.”
The waiter returned with Nate’s card and a pen. “I’m sorry again that I thought you were married,” he told them.
“What’s to apologize for?” Nate asked. “There are much worse things you could have mistaken us for.”
“I suppose so, sir,” he said, “And it’s just that the way you two talked it looked like you had known each other for a while and were, well, married.”
“No harm done,” Emma smiled at the waiter. “I don’t take any offense at it.”
“It’s not going to hurt your tip,” Nate said, picking up the pen, “If that’s what your worried about.”
“Oh, and a piece of advice,” Emma added.
“Yes?” the waiter asked.
“In the future,” she held up her left hand and wiggled her fingers, “Look for rings.”
His eyes grew wide. “I, uh, wow. I feel like an idiot.”
Nate sighed and shook his head. “She has that effect on people.”
“Hey!” Emma smacked him on the shoulder. “That’s mean.”
“I know,” Nate offered her a toothy grin.
“Um, yeah,” the waiter said, “Have a nice day.”
“You, too,” Nate replied.
He signed the receipt and they got up to leave. As they got back into the car Emma looked over at him. “Thanks,” she said.
“You know, lunch.”
“No problem. And thank you for giving up your day for me.” He started the car and pulled out of the parking lot, aiming the Acura back towards Chauncey.
The small talk continued for the next several miles, but as Nate pulled back on to I-70, he decided to try getting some personal information out of his passenger. “So,” he said to Emma, “We’ve had plenty of time for self-indulgent discussions about me. Tell me something about yourself.”
“I don’t know,” she responded, “There’s not much to tell.”
“You must think I’m really dumb,” he told her, doing his best to mimic what she had told him the two days before, “Because I can’t imagine you would think I believe that if you thought otherwise.”
She laughed. “Fine, I guess you’re right. I think it’s more that my story isn’t very interesting.”
“Tell you what. You tell me your story, and I’ll tell you if it’s interesting.”
Emma played with a stray strand of hair and feigned a moment of deep thought on the offer. “Fine,” she said after the pause, “You’ve got yourself a deal.”
Emma let out a long sigh and ran her hand through her hair. “I was actually born in Lansing, Michigan,” she told him, apparently deciding to start from the very beginning, “But I moved to Chauncey when I was seven to live with Aunt Ruth and Uncle Earl.”
“Why did you do that?” he asked.
“My parents died in a car accident and Aunt Ruth took me in. Uncle Earl died about four months after I came here, so she basically became a single mother overnight.”
“I’m sorry,” Nate said, not exactly sure how to respond to that kind of news.
“Hey,” she let out a half hearted laugh, “You shouldn’t be sorry. You didn’t kill them.”
“Still,” he said, reaching up with his right hand to give her shoulder a squeeze, “I’m sorry all the same. Both my parents are still alive…I can’t begin to understand how you feel.”
“You get used to it after a while, I guess,” she said, but Nate could tell it still bothered her. Either that or she just didn’t like talking about it to strangers. “Aunt Ruth was wonderful, though,” Emma continued, “I kind of think of her like she’s my mother. I don’t think I could have made it without her…”
Nate took his hand off her shoulder and put it on the car’s gear shift lever in the pause following her statement, more for something to do that wouldn’t disturb her than anything else. He had never been touched closely by death, and did not know how she, or anyone, could have handled so much in such a short time.
“When I graduated high school I went down to Texas for college,” the sudden change of subject and tone surprising Nate out of his thoughts. “I studied psychology. I think I wanted to figure myself out more than actually being in the field, though.”
“Well,” Nate let out a short laugh, “seems to me you learned it pretty well. You blew my cover pretty fast.”
She turned toward him and smiled, the sparkle returning to her eyes. “Hey, I said I didn’t want to go into the field, not that I don’t know how to learn.”
“I liked college a lot,” she continued, “And I had a trust fund to pay for it, so I went to graduate school after getting my bachelor’s degree. I was working on my Masters when I met Charlie.”
“And this would be the ex-husband briefly mentioned the other day?”
“Yes,” she answered, “I thought he was the most wonderful man in the world. We got married right after graduation and settled down in Austin.”
“I thought you lived in the house outside Chauncey.”
“Well, we were in Austin for about two years, but the marriage started to fall apart. Turned out he wasn’t nearly as wonderful as I thought he had been.”
A shadow passed across her face and Emma fell silent. “It’s…not something I really want to get into right now,” she said after nearly a mile had passed.
“That’s fine. You don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to,” he said.
“Thank you.” A look of relief crossed her face. “I thought maybe things would be better if we moved back to Chauncey. I don’t know why I thought that, because things only got worse. Six months later the marriage was officially over.”
“I’m…I’m sorry,” Nate said, again unsure of how to respond.
“That’s life, I guess,” she shrugged. “I’ve been on my own for almost three years now, and I’ve gotten used to it.”
Again the car was filled with silence. For several minutes Nate looked out the window at the wheatfields stretching to the horizon. Finally he turned back to Emma. “You know, I feel pretty stupid right about now,” he said.
“What am I doing?” he asked her, “Running away from my job, my life and marriage because I’m too scared to go through it?”
She didn’t respond for a second as her face darkened. “So what?” her eyes narrowed and her voice rose, “Poor little Emma has had to deal with so much in her life, let’s feel sorry for her and think of how great life is because your parents didn’t die and your marriage didn’t end in pain and anger? Is that what this makes me, someone to pity and be a reminder of how much you actually had?”
“No, that’s not it at all,” Nate said, realizing just a little too late how insensitive he sounded, “I’m just saying that…well, I’m not sure what I was saying, actually.”
“I don’t need or want your pity, Nate Lassiter,” she crossed her arms and pressed herself back against the passenger seat.
For several moments Nate said nothing, sure that whatever he said would come out poorly and be interpreted in the worst possible way. After long deliberation he decided to try. “I’m sorry,” he told her, “I didn’t mean it that way. All I was trying to say was that my problems suddenly seemed so small compared to the stuff you’ve been through. It wasn’t meant to hurt you at all.” A wall of silence from the right side of the car ate his words and did not encourage him to continue.
The last few miles of the drive to Chauncey passed under an oppressive silence. As Nate pulled off the freeway he muttered, almost too quiet to hear, “Guess this just goes to prove that Julia’s probably better off without me. I never was very good at communicating.”
Molly was excited to see him as the Acura pulled up to the house, but Emma got into her big pickup without a word. Nate sat on the porch steps and watched the dust settle on the gravel road, absentmindedly scratching the dog’s head. “Maybe I should go back to Chicago and face everyone,” he told Molly, “Because it sure seems like I just lost my only friend out here.” Bereft of anything else to occupy his mind, he got up from the steps and started taking boxes into the house.
As the sun began to sink toward the horizon Nate decided it was time to go outside and appreciate the open spaces of Kansas. A few hours of work on his new sound system had brought him to the point where he could not continue until the TV arrived the next week, assuming he still decided to stick around. Waking Molly from a nap on the kitchen floor and grabbing the Frisbee, he headed into the backyard.
A few throws later he began to enjoy the quiet. The wide open spaces were refreshing and he enjoyed the symphony of nature that was so suppressed where he had come from.
In the failing sunlight Nate didn’t notice he wasn’t alone at first. Then Molly stopped paying attention to him and stared back towards the house. He turned, confused.
Emma stood silently next to the house, partially masked by long evening shadows. Her shoulders were slumped and her hands shoved deep into her pockets.
“Wha…what are you doing here?” Nate asked.
“I came by because I wanted…” she trailed off.
Nate walked over to her. She looked up at him. “Look, Emma,” he said to her, “I didn’t mean to say anything bad about you back in the car. I know I already apologized, but I guess it wasn’t good enough. I hope this time it is.”
“I know you didn’t mean anything,” she responded, “I’m kind of defensive about certain parts of my past, especially my marriage, I guess. It’s just that around here…” she trailed off again.
Her tone seemed to leave it up to him to decide what the cryptic statement meant, so he decided not to press her any further. “And I should have been more tactful,” he told her.
“I guess,” she said, taking her hands out of her pockets and stepping closer to him. “But you’re wrong about one thing.”
“You are good at communicating. And I’ll bet Julia isn’t thinking life is great without you around. In fact, I’d bet she’s pretty broken up about it.” Her deep, brown eyes locked on to his with the same intensity and probing gaze that had made him so uncomfortable the day before. In the dying light of the Kansas sunset it did not seem nearly so intimidating.
“Well, thank you for that vote of confidence.”
It took him by surprise when they embraced. The hug was awkward at first, but that soon gave way to something comfortable, familiar. It was as if he was comforting an old friend. They stood in silence for several minutes, allowing the moment to say more than any apology could have communicated.
Then, just as suddenly and unaccountably as it began, the hug ended. Emma smiled at him, then returned to her truck without saying another word.
Nate stared after her until the truck disappeared around a curve. Finally he looked back to Molly, silently observing him from under the big tree. “Come on, girl,” he said, “Let’s get some dinner.” and turned toward the house.
He hopped up the steps and into the house, pausing only to hold the door open for the golden retriever. For several minutes he moved around the kitchen, preparing Molly’s food and putting together a sandwich for himself. Sitting in one of the creaky kitchen chairs, he chewed thoughtfully, not entirely sure what to make of his current situation. “What do you think, Molly?” he asked the dog. “What have I gotten myself into?”
The dog looked up from her dish and regarded him silently for a moment before turning back to her meal. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “I keep talking, but you can’t tell me anything.” He let out a short chuckle, “I’ll bet that if you ever did talk, I’d have a heart attack.”
The dog remained silent.
“You’ll let me know if this whole thing gets out of control though, right?”
A short while later he grew tired of trying to figure out the mysteries of life. Choosing instead to find an answer to an easy question he turned on the TV in the sitting room. The old, small TV looked incongruous surrounded by all his new equipment. The satellite outside still seemed work, however. That was all he really needed.
A short while later Molly joined him, jumping up onto the couch and resting her head on his lap. Scratching her head and searching for baseball games, he flipped through the channels. The White Sox had the night off, so he consoled himself with a Giants/Diamondbacks game out on the west coast.
During the post-game wrap-up Nate fell asleep on the couch. The dreams did not start up at all during the night, and for the first time since leaving Chicago he slept soundly.